The Tall Stranger

Thematically, what is the western all about? That’s a big question, bearing in mind the breadth and endurance of the genre. So many themes have been encompassed over the decades and plots have woven all types of ideas into the fabric of the genre. I frequently return to the notion of redemption and it naturally crops up time and again, but I’m inclined to think the western is all about searching. Sure John Ford made one of the greatest movies of all time with that word and idea helping to form its title, but the concept of groups and individuals forever ranging towards a mythical west in search of something is at the root of so many stories. Even that is a nebulous comment and open to all kinds of interpretations so I’ll try to nail it down a bit. I reckon the western is primarily about seeking out a place of one’s own, either a spiritual or physical promised land, somewhere for characters to fulfill themselves, to add that last elusive piece to the puzzle of their own existence. For one reason or another, I found myself mulling this over the other day as I watched The Tall Stranger (1957), a decidedly modest western and one which I doubt the filmmakers actively thought of in those terms. Still, just because a theme may not have been foremost in the minds of those making a movie does not mean it is not there, or that is any less relevant as a consequence.

From feuds and fights to romance and reputations, The Tall Stranger has no shortage of ideas to bulk out its 80 minute running time. The opening image is a staple of the genre, with a lone rider making his way across the wilderness, his eyes probing the horizon and beyond, searching for something. Ned Bannon (Joel McCrea)  chances upon a group of men riding herd on some cattle and, out of curiosity, pauses to take a better look. That proves to be a mistake, costing him his horse and almost his own life at the hands of an unseen sniper. As he lies on the ground seriously wounded and at the edge of consciousness, he glimpses the gold-plated rifle and fancy spurs sported by his assailant. However, Bannon is a lucky man and is rescued and nursed back to health by a wagon train of former Confederates heading west and hoping for a fresh start in California. In among those is Ellen (Virginia Mayo), a woman bringing up a little boy on her own. These two people find themselves drawn to each other, perhaps as a result of their shared status as outsiders, Bannon’s having been a Union officer adding to his otherness next to the Southerners. A few of those plot elements are therefore seeded quite early, but the depths of the feuding and conflict are mined later. We first learn that Bannon is headed back to the ranch run by his half-brother, a man who has sworn revenge on him for the death of his only son during the war, then there is another layer of conflict to come as the settlers, under the influence of a manipulative opportunist, make their minds up to stake out a piece of the sprawling ranch for themselves. As such, everything is set up for a showdown between these competing forces and personalities, all of them looking to carve out and lay claim to a little corner of the world to call their own.

While The Tall Stranger is not a particularly ambitious movie, or certainly not one which sets out its stall to deal head on with big themes, it manages to incorporate some of those core ingredients of the genre into its compact form and structure. The concept of competing factions in conflict over the land itself is timeless, one that underpins not just the western but so much human drama. That the events on screen take place in the immediate aftermath of a war over control of the country emphasizes the never ending nature of this struggle among men for mastery of the land, of the hunger to make it theirs. Yet it is the more personal need to achieve a sense of belonging and permanence that is of greater interest. Bannon is a man made rootless by his personal feuds and the scars of battle. He is, however, an optimist in the best western tradition, forever looking ahead to greener pastures and better times. In Ellen he discovers someone else cast adrift in the world, a self-confessed fugitive from tutting puritanism. The need of these two lonely people for something as simple as a home, a place to lay down their own roots and tend to them quietly, provides the heart of the story, and in its own way is an unpretentious reflection of the perennial appeal of the western.

Joel McCrea was one of the linchpin actors of the western, as essential to its development as John Wayne, James Stewart, Randolph Scott or Gary Cooper. All the great western actors brought something unique and special to the table, and in McCrea’s case it was that sense of dignified and courtly decency. He shares some fine moments with Virginia Mayo, not least an early scene where he rides off, perhaps never to return as far as the two of them are concerned at that stage, and the unspoken regret and hurt of both is palpable. Later, there is the scene outside the ranch house, where Mayo tells of her past with raw frankness and McCrea perfectly encapsulates the innocent bewilderment of his character. Both Mayo and McCrea had starred in Raoul Walsh’s marvelous Colorado Territory almost  a decade earlier and The Tall Stranger reunited them. While the relationship in this movie may not have the hot and tragic passion of that in Walsh’s work, their quiet, understated yearning is every bit as powerful and compelling.

The supporting cast is deep and strong, with Leo Gordon and Michael Pate in rare sympathetic roles and Barry Kelley providing plenty of meaty bluster as McCrea’s hardheaded half-brother. The villains of the piece are a flashily dangerous Michael Ansara and George Neise as the chief pot stirrer. Ray Teal and Whit Bissell have small parts and their presence is as welcome as ever.

With a script by Christopher Knopf (Hell Bent for Leather) from a Louis L’Amour novel, The Tall Stranger packs a lot into its relatively brief running time. Director Thomas Carr has it looking reasonably good and uses the ‘Scope frame well, but there is, in my opinion anyway, an over-reliance on day-for-night filters. I don’t believe the movie has had a release on disc anywhere which respects the aspect ratio. However, it can usually be viewed in the correct ‘Scope format online, and in very good quality too.

Sometimes the least likely places harbor the clearest truths, pared down modesty serving to draw attention to the essentials where intricacy and ambition can perhaps end up obscuring them – Sir Isaac Newton once made a similar point in much more elegant terms when he said: “Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.” So, to finish up, The Tall Stranger will never make anyone’s list of top westerns yet it contains within it, and maybe even in spite of itself, a lot of what makes the genre work.

They Rode West

A movie is a journey, one undertaken by characters and observed by viewers, and the degree to which it can be considered a success depends on how much those characters have learnt about themselves and the world they occupy by the time they reach their destination. I think this holds true for most films, whatever the genre, but it plays an even more significant role in the western. The western, despite its frequent reliance on action, is very much a character driven genre. The great westerns achieve that quality through the development of their characters, emphasizing growth, renewal and redemption along the way. When I view a film like Phil Karlson’s They Rode West (1954) I am left thinking it is only partially successful, which of course is not to say that it fails to entertain or that it has no points of interest in plotting or approach. Ultimately though, the film feels more like an exercise in vindication as opposed to redemption, which is never as rewarding a payoff.

As is the case in any good drama, They Rode West presents multiple layers of conflict. From the beginning it is clear that Captain Blake (Phil Carey) has a strong dislike and distrust of the medical profession. The outpost has had the misfortune to be lumbered with a succession of incompetents, the last of whom has just killed Blake’s friend through drunken negligence. So, when the new replacement, Lieutenant Seward (Robert Francis), turns out to be a green recruit with neither military nor frontier experience, Blake is perhaps understandably antagonistic. This is the main source of conflict that runs through the movie and it is supplemented by a kind of stuttering rivalry over the affections of the Colonel’s niece Laurie (Donna Reed). Alongside that, there is further friction generated by Seward’s compassion and empathy for the plight of the Kiowa of the nearby reservation, feelings which are complicated by his obvious attraction to a white captive (May Wynn). Caught between the hawkish and inflexible Blake and the increasingly frustrated Kiowa, Seward soon finds the call of his conscience has led to him being labeled a traitor (a wood hawk) by the troopers.

They Rode West is a handsome production with Charles Lawton’s cinematography making the best of the Iverson Ranch locations. I can’t find anything to confirm my suspicions, but the shooting style employed by Karlson gives the impression that the movie was shot for 3D presentation. He indulges in a fair few heavily canted angles, which may simply be a stylistic choice, but there are a number of scenes (predominantly action/battle sequences) where those telltale shots of people and objects leaning and falling onto the lens are on display.

Frank Nugent’s screenplay, from a story by Leo Katcher (The Hard Man, Party Girl, Between Midnight and Dawn) has Seward and Blake forever at daggers drawn, principally though not exclusively over their contrasting attitudes towards the Kiowa. This is well enough done and feeds into the more nuanced view of the Indian that an be found throughout westerns of the era, particularly those of Delmer Daves and George Sherman, and elements of this crop up in Karlson’s own later (and superior) Gunman’s Walk. Still, the handling, or maybe I should say the way the characterizations unfold, is not all that satisfactory. As I alluded to at the top of the piece, there is little of the redemptive spirit that enriches so many 1950s westerns. One could, I suppose, argue that Seward’s actions eventually lead to the restoration of trust between the warring sides and that the faith he manages to draw from the both sets of combatants has a redemptive effect on them. However, I feel that is reaching somewhat, that the truth is the tale winds its way to a vindication of the approach championed by Seward from the get go. While that is fine in itself, it means his character has undergone little change; he sees his ideals comes to be accepted and the criticism leveled at him firmly rebutted yet he remains essentially the man we first saw, albeit a little more worldly-wise.

Phil Carey seems like he should have had a bigger career. I guess his credits show he did fine in general, but the fact is, in spite of working for directors such as John Ford and Raoul Walsh, he never rose above second lead in anything other than programmers. Roles like that of Captain Blake can’t have helped, he starts out as abrasive and short-tempered (justifiably so under the circumstances) and basically stays that way till the end credits roll. As I said, there is no renewal or rebirth to be seen here and it’s an ambivalent part too, neither fish nor fowl. Robert Francis gets the noble part and he plays it well, with freshness and decency and he also conveys the doubts and guilt which assail him quite effectively. However, his was a short and tragic life and he would die in a plane crash just a year later at the age of 25 having made only four films. May Wynn (who worked opposite Robert Francis in The Caine Mutiny) has what I feel is the most interesting part in the movie. The role is not an especially taxing one but it is pivotal and, crucially, it offers an unexpected perspective on the life of a captive. She is not portrayed as someone who is seeking escape, but instead as a woman who has reconciled herself to life with the Kiowa and who has no intention of leaving. Donna Reed had just won an Oscar for From Here to Eternity but this film wasn’t going to capitalize on that. Although she has some fun showing a bit of coquetry from time to time, it’s all standard love interest stuff and never particularly memorable.

They Rode West has appeared on DVD in France and Spain and it can generally be tracked down for online viewing too. All in all, it is an enjoyable western, a solid cavalry yarn whose heart is in the right place. It’s attractively put together, has pace and includes some exciting action scenes. Had the scripting allowed some real growth in the characters to take place, I wouldn’t feel the need to offer caveats. So, whilst it won’t make anyone’s list of great westerns, it is still a good one.

From Hell to Texas

“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Revenge is a motif that is popular in the western, driving and challenging heroes, anti-heroes and villains. The better, or perhaps it would be closer to the mark to say the more thoughtful, westerns of the 1950s mined this theme extensively. The conclusion reached by these films is a virtually universal rejection of the concept of vengeance, an acknowledgment that nothing positive can ever be achieved by sitting down to dine with the Furies. Henry Hathaway’s From Hell to Texas (1958) makes this point very clearly by highlighting not only the corrosive effects of such a self-defeating quest on those who seek revenge, but also by presenting a hunted man who is both innocent of what is alleged and morally appalled by the violent situation in which he becomes mired.

It is all about pursuit and discovery. Tod Lohman (Don Murray) is a hunted man, first glimpsed leading his lame pony to water and some brief respite. He’s running from the sons and riders of Hunter Boyd (R G Armstrong), a local bigwig who has decided that Lohman must pay for the death of one of his sons. That the death was an accident and no fault of Lohman’s is irrelevant for Boyd is of that implacable and inflexible frontier breed, hard men who conquered lands and thrived by having no dealings with frivolities such as self-doubt. So Lohman’s only hope is to run and keep running. When his attempts to avert a deliberately engineered stampede leads to the fatal injury of the second of Boyd’s three sons, it looks as though Lohman has merely driven another nail into that coffin others seem hell bent on fashioning for him. So he’s off again, soon reduced to making his way on foot and feeling his energy sapping all the time. A short stop to rest up sees him making the acquaintance of Amos Bradley (Chill Wills) and his tomboyish daughter Nita (Diane Varsi). This represents a turning point for Lohman. Up to this point, he has been a man alone, one half step ahead of danger and dependent only on his wits. His meeting with Nita offers an ally and a sense of hope too, serving to open the character up in the eyes of the audience as well. Perhaps it isn’t too difficult to tell where the story is going but that’s not what matters. While the ultimate destination proves to be a satisfying one, the real reward is to be found on the road we follow in the company of these characters.

The pursuit I mentioned is present right from the beginning, stark and relentless and powering the narrative. However, there is the matter of discovery which develops in tandem, and which brings another layer of interest, a very welcome one. Lohman is portrayed as something of an innocent in the ways of the world, or at least in the machinations of those inhabiting it. Even as he’s running from Boyd and his would-be revengers, he too is searching for someone. His mother has passed and he sustains himself on a memory, a photo and an old Bible, all of which comprise her sole legacy to her son. His father had left to seek something  – perhaps fortune, maybe freedom, who can say? – while Lohman was still a boy. Now the boy has become a man and is casting around to find this absent father in order to make sense of his past. It is somehow fitting that his flight from the present towards the mysteries of the past actually brings him face to face with his future. Hence the discovery, that the closure attained with regard to what is over and done helps to open a young man’s eyes to how he can deal with the challenges of the here and now, and so move on to a better place.

All told, From Hell to Texas is an extraordinarily positive movie, as a result of the writing of Wendell Mayes and Robert Bruckner, and of course the performance of Don Murray too. The actor brings what I can only term a credible credulity to the role, that hard to define quality of a man grown big in a vast and unforgiving land yet remaining possessed of a simple faith in people. This is a tricky balance to achieve if it is not to ring false. To Murray’s great credit, the open-heartedness of his character is never in doubt, nor are his capabilities as a frontiersman. That he has skill with a gun is clear and it is demonstrated on a number of occasions, but his abhorrence of violence and its consequences is every bit as apparent. The first time that we see him placed in a position where he has been left with no option but to kill a man makes for a powerful if understated scene. The shock and disgust at how he was forced to act, and ultimately at himself for doing so, is conveyed perfectly by Murray. Then in the immediate aftermath among the familiar rocks of Lone Pine as he finds himself unable to take another life, that of the victim’s horse, the effect is crystallized. In fact, running all through this movie is an innate respect for the sanctity of life. It’s there in the heart of Lohman, it’s there in the selflessness of the Bradley family, it’s there in the way a priest tends to the memory of a man who was essentially a stranger to him, and it reaches its zenith in the fiery cathartic climax.

Diane Varsi worked well with Murray and their scenes together have a frankness and simplicity that is touching. Her star soared quickly after she made her debut in Peyton Place but the pressures of stardom saw her step back from the movies quite soon. She would return later but, sadly, her career wouldn’t be the same again. On screen, R G Armstrong often had an air about him of a man who would not be turned, and he brings that ruthless determination to bear on the part of Hunter Boyd. Sure he is a man in the wrong but his idiosyncratic concept of justice and the fact he also embarks on a journey leading to personal revelation (a journey that while different is just as important as that undertaken by Murray) makes him much more than a one-dimensional cutout villain. Chill Wills is, well, Chill Wills, but that really isn’t a bad thing. Jay C Flippen pops up for a time, looking crafty and faintly untrustworthy. Dennis Hopper, fresh off Giant and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a bit mannered as the last of Boyd’s sons and plays a pivotal role in how matters are eventually resolved. It has been said he had a less than harmonious relationship on set with Hathaway, which seems very possible given their markedly different approaches to filmmaking, although they would work together again on The Sons of Katie Elder and True Grit. John Larch, Rodolfo Acosta and Harry Carey Jr all make appearances as henchmen, however, their screen time is limited.

From Hell to Texas ought to be relatively easy to access these days. The old German Koch Media DVD I purchased over a decade ago appears to be long out of print but there are a range of other options available in other European markets as well as in the US. The image, on my copy at least, is softer than I’d like but I have to say Hathaway used the ‘Scope lens very effectively, and Daniele Amfitheatrof’s score sounds wonderful. To my mind, this is a fine western all round, albeit not one that is talked about much. Do check it out if you are not familiar with it.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

While literary adaptations come up for discussion on this site all the time, remakes of earlier movies are less common. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962) is both an adaptation of the novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez and a remake of the silent film directed by Rex Ingram and starring Rudolph Valentino. In the interests of full disclosure, allow me to get it out of the way from the get go that I have neither read the novel nor have I seen Ingram’s movie. As such, I won’t be indulging in any comparisons here, which is something I try to avoid where possible anyway. After all, a work ought to be assessed on its own merits, to do otherwise is to rob it of its integrity.

This is a tale of family, war and division yet, in the final analysis, I think it is also a film about unity. The opening is celebratory, packed with dancing, music and, above all, color. It is 1938 in Argentina and Madariaga (Lee J Cobb), in a brazen repudiation of his years, is reveling in life, for its own sake and also in anticipation of the coming together of the two branches of his family. Madariaga has two daughters, one married to Karl (Paul Lukas), a German, and the other to Marcelo (Charles Boyer), a Frenchman.  The offspring of these two couples will all be present after a long absence, so it should be an occasion for joy. However, it is, as has been noted, 1938 and joy is about to take a long vacation. During the course of the evening, Karl’s son Heinrich (Karl Boehm) comes clean about his involvement in the Nazi cause, provoking outrage in his grandfather. To the accompaniment of elemental furies within and without, the old man has visions of the horsemen of the title, representing conquest, war, pestilence and death, charging across a lightning ripped sky. And then he dies. The story moves to Paris, seen largely through the eyes of Julio (Glenn Ford), the dissipated and pleasure-seeking son of Marcelo. That storm which toppled the head of the family half a world away has followed and has lost none of its strength on the long journey. Julio is a self-absorbed wastrel, quick to seduce the wife (Ingrid Thulin) of one of his father’s friends, complacent and secure in the apathy afforded by his neutral status. When the war finally breaks out and engulfs everyone, he gradually learns the value of love, of loyalty, of sacrifice and, crucially, of what it means to be part of a family, even a divided one.

War, love and hate, but family above all. We follow the fate of the two conflicting branches of the family, one half seduced by darkness and the other coddled by decadence. The war cleaves them, tearing the younger generation in particular apart and setting them at each other’s throats. Yet by the end, when the horsemen have done their worst, the intangible and eternal core of the family remains intact, in spirit if nothing else. That finale, with those lords of chaos riding triumphantly across the sky, has an unquestionably grim quality, an ancient malignancy pressing on in a relentless continuum. Still, there is a grain of hope there too – there are, it seems, two slightly different endings and it’s possible the viewer’s perceptions may shift depending on which one is seen – hinting at the ultimate resilience of the concept of family. Both sides of Madariaga’s clan have been devastated yet even in the moment of their greatest loss those who remain have been drawn back together. Perhaps that is the message running through it all, that family in its broadest possible sense, that of society of which we are all members, still endures. The rampaging horsemen may be forever with us, but so too are those unshakeable familial bonds that hold everything in place.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was poorly received on release, with a disappointing box office and a critical drubbing. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who never seems to have met a picture he liked, kicked the movie good and hard. Opinions are always varied and no more than an individual’s reaction to what is offered up, and of course there’s no getting away from the fact that I am simply presenting my own take here, but it is generally both poor form and somehow worthless to criticize a work for what it is not as opposed to what it is. Should anyone feel like seeking out Mr Crowther’s hatchet job on the film, it will be clear that he appeared most offended by a remake and adaptation not being a carbon copy of what came before. That type of criticism feels utterly redundant. However, what struck me as even more wrong-headed were the barbs aimed at Vincente Minnelli’s direction. To quote from that review:

“…most of it reeks of the sound stages and the painted sets of a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio These, on wide screen in color and lighted like a musical show, convey no more illusion of actuality than did “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”That much is the fault of the screen play, garbled grossly by Robert Ardrey and John Gay, and the staging of Mr. Minnelli, who should have looked at a couple of neo-realist films.”

That comment indicates to me that the writer either ignored or fundamentally misunderstood the director and his intentions. The artist is concerned with truth first and foremost. In order to address this, he searches for, he explores, and if he is truly fortunate, he finds himself in a position to present that truth via his chosen medium. Minnelli was an artist. For him, the quest for truth took precedence over any thoughts of adherence to realism. Cinema allows for the incorporation of a broad range of techniques and approaches, and there are those who try to reconcile artistic truth and realism. Minnelli, on the other hand, sought to achieve a separation, happily sacrificing the illusion of realism – and excepting documentaries, what appears on the screen can never be anything other than illusion – in order to break down those barriers which would stifle artistic expression.

All of those elements which have been pointed out as flaws or weaknesses are deliberate choices on the part of the director.  While Minnelli might have had some reservations with regard to aspects of the script and casting, the staging and presentation feel very characteristic of his work. He was a very visual director, making bold choices when it came to color and that balletic sense he brought to set piece scenes: the debauched Parisian parties, the Latin nightclub, the riot that leads to the initial arrest of Yvette Mimieux. There is a oneiric quality to all of this, heightened sensations brought to life on the screen in order to stimulate the viewer’s emotions. The striking colors are very effective too; the predominance of red is notable, from the drenched and saturated newsreel footage, suggesting danger and violence, to the decor of Glenn Ford’s apartment. The contrast of red and grey is marked in that set, and also in the costuming in one key scene. The color scheme of the apartment is reflected in the intense, passionate red of Ford’s smoking jacket and the cooler, more practical grey of Ingrid Thulin’s suit, mirroring their contrasting characters when they reluctantly acknowledge that circumstances have left them no alternative but to part.

In terms of casting, the most widespread complaint seems to relate to that of Glenn Ford, mainly due to his age. Admittedly, he is old for the part, in his mid-40s at the time. The early scenes in Argentina, and also pre-war Paris, where Ford is supposed to be gliding along fueled by youthful hedonism, feel a bit forced. However, the role of Julio is one which requires the character to mature fast as the war takes an increasingly heavy personal toll and the option of simply sitting on the fence becomes no option at all. It is here that Ford grows into the role, or it could be said the role grows around him. Either way, that internalized dissatisfaction which the actor was able to exploit so well in his classic western and noir roles in the preceding decades serve him well. As the character of Julio begins to live a double life, so Ford gets the requisite psychological squirming across. Minnelli is said to have initially wanted Alain Delon for the part and it’s interesting, if not especially productive, to speculate on how he would have handled the part. Ingrid Thulin (dubbed by Angela Lansbury) has a certain Scandinavian aloofness about her – Ava Gardner is said to have been the first choice for the role – but she plays well off Ford and their relationship feels credible.

Charles Boyer’s turn as the head of the French side of the family is nicely judged. He is as suave as one would expect of a man in his position, but there is discomfort too, and it comes out in two scenes with Ford, one where he confesses to the cowardice which has hounded him all his life, and then on a rain-soaked Parisian bridge, racked with grief after the death of his daughter, as he begs his son to be a braver and better man than he had ever been himself. Boyer also shares a poignant moment with Paul Lukas, where both men are screaming at each other in bewilderment as the horror of their personal tragedies mounts. Paul Henreid is simultaneously chilling and stoic as the hero of the resistance, slowly being destroyed, physically by the attention of the Gestapo and mentally by  the loss of his wife’s love. As for the others, Yvette Mimieux is fine as the impassioned younger child of Boyer, while Karl Boehm is a textbook Nazi. Finally, Lee J Cobb plays it large in the  opening scenes. Is it all too affected? Well, that is something the viewer will have to decide. For me, in a movie where many aspects are heightened and intensified with the aim of raising the dramatic temperature, Cobb’s performance can be considered to be just another dab of color.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse can be found on DVD in the US as part of the Warner Archive, and editions are available in France, Italy and Spain. This is a film I came to relatively recently and one which I quite like. It has its flaws and it drifts in places but there are enough of Minnelli’s characteristic flourishes to draw me in, and Glenn Ford is someone I can always watch. It is not perfect but the pluses outweigh the negatives for me and I reckon it is a good deal better than some of the criticism leveled at it would have us believe.

Slattery’s Hurricane

Many of the movies that wind up being featured on this site are borderline or peripheral affairs in terms of genre, drifting in and out of that shadowy, hard to define area, which is almost, but not quite, film noir. André de Toth’s Slattery’s Hurricane (1949) is a case in point, mixing in crime, melodrama and adventure in a tale of trust and betrayal that unfolds largely in flashback. In a sense though, this is a movie which more or less defies genre and classification, but perhaps that is no bad thing as it allows viewers to approach it from multiple angles.

After some newsreel footage and a brief opening narration on the subject of hurricanes and their devastating power, the movie proper begins with pilot Will Slattery (Richard Widmark) arriving at an aircraft hangar lashed by torrential rain and high winds. It’s Miami and a beast of a hurricane is bearing down on the coast as he first grapples with and then lays out cold one of his employer’s servants. Slattery is a man every bit as driven as the raging elements around him yet his path will take him not away from danger but straight into its heart, right into the eye of the storm. As he takes the plane up and charts a course that will lead him to whatever place fate has reserved for him the flashback begins. It leads us back to a point before Slattery had fully committed his life to a downward spiral. There’s a roguishness to him, a hint of the irresponsible and the reckless, but even if he’s not as attentive to the needs of his girlfriend Dolores (Veronica Lake) as he ought to be, it doesn’t feel like a major flaw. That’s before Aggie (Linda Darnell) appears on the scene though. While she may be his old flame, she is also the new wife of his friend Lt. Hobson (John Russell). If Hobson is initially unaware of any previous connection between these two and equally blind to the heat the pair are generating every time they come near, the same cannot be said for Dolores. She smells a rat right from the get go and Slattery duly lives down to expectations. As he sets about seducing his friend’s new bride, Dolores is showing signs of fragility. Everything comes to a head when a quick spot of island hopping sees Slattery’s employer succumb to a heart condition, leaving the flyer in possession of the stash of narcotics he had been carrying. With the dead man’s partner threatening him, Dolores suffering a breakdown, Hobson finally cottoning on to what’s been happening behind his back, and a major tropical storm about to tear across Florida, Slattery could be said to be facing a crisis. When it suddenly dawns on a man that all he is and all that he has done has shattered not only his own existence but that of those closest to him, it is perhaps understandable that he might seek out some form of redemption. And so we circle back to the starting point, where a desperate individual buffeted and torn by poor choices and his own weakness has opted to flee the emotional maelstrom he has fallen into and instead tackle the wrath of nature head on.

Director André de Toth has Slattery confined within the perspex and metal of the aircraft’s cockpit for the bulk of the running time, and just as he is bound on all sides by the dimensions of his plane, so is the plane itself held in the fickle and destructive grasp of the great storm. In a sense, everything and everybody in this pared down universe is at the mercy of somebody and something else. Slattery’s hurricane is both a test for the man and a kind of isolation chamber allowing and forcing him to confront himself and his past actions and by so doing try to regain some modicum of self respect.

De Toth had a knack for using weather conditions as a reflection of the emotional states of his characters and the stories built around them. Day of the Outlaw is as chilling and sparse as its frozen setting, and even the ultimately disappointing Dark Waters uses its steamy Louisiana plantation as an effective representation of its overheated and oppressive tale. Essentially trapping his lead in the cockpit of his plane for the duration and only allowing the illusion of escape via the flashbacks takes it a step further. It is here, deep within the roaring darkness which Slattery’s world has become, that he sees himself and his life with the greatest clarity. Those flashbacks to the sun drenched days by the ocean reveal the deceptions and ploys played out in the full light of day. It is in this surface brightness that the dishonesty is presented with the most audacity: Slattery’s careless flirtations with Aggie in front of everyone, the relaxed opulence of the wealthy “candy manufacturer” hiding his drugs operation in plain sight, and of course the medal ceremony where Slattery, in dazzling whites, receives the honor his subsequent actions have now tarnished and Dolores’ ultimate collapse is triggered. Conversely, the enclosing and enveloping darkness and shadows serve to squeeze the less palatable truths out into the open.

Slattery’s Hurricane appears to have been a film that drew a fair bit of attention from Joseph Breen and the Hays Code. Obviously, the entire adultery/cheating thread had to be dealt with obliquely, but filmmakers were well versed in how to get the essentials of such affairs across subtly by the late 1940s. In short, the viewer is always fully aware of what is going on between the characters even when it’s not spelt out explicitly. More guile had to be used, however, in relation to the breakdown undergone by Dolores. Not only is the character in the employ of a couple of drug traffickers, but it turns out she is an addict herself. This kind of development was well beyond the pale though and thus there’s a deliberate woolliness about the nature of her problem and admission to a psychiatric clinic. Nevertheless, the filmmakers did show a degree of inventiveness in slipping in a close up of her doctor’s notes which make it clear that she has a drug problem. What’s more, my impression is that the affluent dope smugglers masquerading as candy merchants are a gay couple, but that too somehow got past Breen’s enforcers.

Slattery’s Hurricane came along just two years after Richard Widmark’s stunning debut in Kiss of Death and I still find it extraordinary just how assured he was even in the very early stages of his career. It was a good role for him at this point, exploiting the shady persona which had been so successful for him but emphasizing the ambiguous rather than the villainous aspects. The film, from a Herman Wouk story, was originally shot and screened with a much more downbeat ending but was then altered before its general release. It would be fair to say that the changes watered down the noir credentials considerably, but I don’t think this damages the film too much. The whole thing  is at heart Slattery’s journey to redemption and, regardless of which way it ends, that goal is attained. The finished film allows for the character’s salvation in addition to his redemption, both of which are earned. If one bears in mind that Veronica Lake was playing an addict, then her drabness and shakiness make some sense. Even so, there is no getting away from the fact that she looked spent or that her film career was nearing its end. She was not yet 27 years old and was struggling with her own substance abuse issues. Linda Darnell had the bigger part and got more screen time. While she is good enough with what she is given, it’s not a terribly taxing role and there is a passivity to it that leaves it not all that interesting. John Russell does not get that much to do either, although he is afforded the opportunity to rough up Widmark some for his betrayal. Gary Merrill is in there too, but mostly spends his time smoking and sweating in the control tower.

Slattery’s Hurricane is a 20th Century Fox production and was released in the US as part of the studio’s MOD line. That may be out of print now but there have been versions available in both Italy and Spain, possibly ports of the US disc. The movie could use a clean up and a sharper transfer, but it’s not a high profile title so that is probably unlikely to happen. It really is Widmark’s show all the way although there’s a lot to enjoy in de Toth’s direction too. All told, this is a well made nearly noir that I recommend checking out.

Carson City

Sometimes I have vague memories of when I first saw certain movies. On occasion, these memories relate to cinema visits, which tend to stand out more of course, but more frequently they are of movies I caught on TV. Saturday afternoon broadcasts introduced me to many films and stars, cementing them in my consciousness largely due to the fact that I came upon them at the right age to allow lasting impressions to form, and also because of the random way I encountered them. As I said, there is a vagueness to all this, and yet I can say that on the afternoon of Saturday January 29th 1977 I was watching Randolph Scott in Carson City (1952). And I am able to state this with confidence due to the wonder of the BBC Genome service, which makes it  possible to discover exactly when any movie was broadcast on its channels. That had been my only viewing of the film till I finally managed to pick it up on DVD over thirty years later. Of course I didn’t recall details but those Randolph Scott westerns that I adored as a youngster worked their way into my memory and played a defining role in shaping my love of cinema. Looked at now, over 45 years on from that weekend spent in front of the family TV, it may not represent the finest work Scott did, but it is a good movie. Perhaps even more importantly, it evokes for me a little of that magic I first experienced all those years ago.

If some movies are capable of transporting viewers like myself back to particular points in time, it is probably fair to say that the western, arguably more than any other genre, succeeded in doing something similar to society itself, encouraging the audience to cast its collective mind back to the that pivotal point where progress butted heads with freewheeling lawlessness and ushered in the modern age. Carson City, as is the case with countless other genre entries, kicks off with a hold-up of a stagecoach. It is such a familiar and well worn trope, but it serves its purpose for all that by drawing viewers into the action immediately. It plays out in a quirky fashion, the bandits laying out a feast before the passengers, a spread attractively presented and accompanied by bottles of champagne. The tone is light for the moment, larceny served with courtesy and style with only the bankers left feeling sore. Yet just as the genre itself was firmly focused on those final years of the open frontier, the fences were popping up in the west and the gate would soon be closed on such Robin Hood romanticism. The juggernaut driving this relentless march toward modernity was the railroad, the unstoppable iron horse that would punch its way through from coast to coast. The townsfolk of Carson City are fearful of what may follow in the wake of the railroad, hoping to cling for as long as possible to the familiarity of the stagecoach lines despite their vulnerability in the face of determined raiders. Jeff Kincaid (Randolph Scott) is the engineer hired by the rail bosses to build the line through the rugged mountainous terrain and add another link in the chain of civilization gradually snaking its way across a continent.

Where does Carson City rank in relation to the other films André de Toth made in collaboration with Randolph Scott? Well, it is neither the best nor the worst of those half dozen pictures so I would have to place it comfortably in the middle. It isn’t an especially complex story, it doesn’t ask its star to dig too deep within and the villains are simply villainous and no more. Still, it is what could be termed an easy watch, with a plot which develops in a straightforward manner that is satisfying even if it’s never especially surprising. De Toth has the scenes in town looking good and the Bronson Canyon and Iverson Ranch locations feel like the well recognized landmarks one passes on the way to a visit with an old friend. It’s colorful, pacy and full of incident – stagecoach and train robberies, a couple of brawls, several shootouts and an atmospheric mine rescue – and the shift in tone from the light, airy beginning to something darker and more dangerous later on is effected seamlessly.

Randolph Scott’s more memorable parts saw him exploring layers of his own private morality, but Carson City is a much more straightforward assignment. The character of Kincaid is one of his clear-eyed and uncomplicated adventurers. Scott could play that kind of noble westerner practically blindfolded and he sails through the movie with a graceful assurance. I am unsure how many on screen railroads he built or how many miles of telegraph wire he strung down the years but it must have been a lot. The only hint of personal conflict comes via his increasingly strained relationship with his young half-brother played by Richard Webb. Even here the envy and resentment grows out of Webb’s own sense of inferiority rather than anything in Scott’s character. The villains are a perpetually scowling and dangerous James Millican and an extremely buttery Raymond Massey, the latter suckering everyone into believing his soft geniality is genuine and not just a smokescreen to conceal his icy ruthlessness. In one of her few dramatic parts, singer Lucille Norman is the newspaperwoman driving a wedge between Scott and Webb. She does fine and, on this showing anyway, I reckon it’s a pity she didn’t make more movies.

Carson City can be found on DVD via the Warner Archive and there are Spanish and Italian editions available as well. Even if it doesn’t labor the point or dwell on the implications to any extent, the story is part of that fairly large body of westerns dealing with the drive towards civilization, modernity and the rule of law. All of that may underpin the story but this is a piece of entertainment first and foremost and it certainly delivers on that. So, while Carson City is not the weightiest of Randolph Scott’s westerns, it does highlight the appeal of the star and consequently offers plenty of enjoyment.

The Revolt of Mamie Stover

I want to start by saying I have never read the book by William Bradford Huie which The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956) is adapted from. In fact, it’s only recently that I had the opportunity to see the movie itself. I point this out because I understand some critics were displeased with the film on release due to its failure to stick as closely to the source as they would have liked. Yes, this is an area of discussion which has arisen before now on this site, and I imagine it will come up again. Personally, I am backing no horse in this race and am simply looking at the movie as a work of cinema in its own right.

It’s 1941 in San Francisco and the USA has yet to enter the Second World War. Mamie Stover (Jane Russell) is on her way to the docks to catch a boat to Honolulu and she’s headed there with an escort, a nice shiny police car is dropping her off and making sure she doesn’t miss the sailing. As Hugo Friedhofer’s sensually jazzy score kicks in, it is apparent that she has, in essence, been declared persona non grata by the authorities and invited to leave town. The reason is never spelled out, but the lewd references made about her on board, and of course her subsequent employment when she reaches her destination, imply that she is a prostitute of some notoriety. Speaking of destinations, this is an aspect which goes to the heart of the movie in many ways. The voyage to Hawaii sees Mamie making the acquaintance of Jim Blair (Richard Egan), a writer headed home to the islands after selling the rights to his book in Hollywood. In a sense, both of these characters are on their way home, although Mamie’s path there is the more circuitous of the two. There follows an almost inevitable shipboard romance and an equally predictable parting of the ways as soon as the ship docks. Jim is going back to his life high on the hill, with a well-bred girl (Joan Leslie) waiting for him. Mamie is off to work as a ‘hostess’ in the dance hall and clip joint run by Bertha Parchman (Agnes Moorehead). Just as surely as Jim and Mamie drift apart, fate’s long and winding road has it in mind for these two to meet again. With the storm clouds of war gathering, and their respective ambitions suggesting they have no business being together, the spark of attraction is still alive. However, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and all that follows, they look to be taking separate roads again – Jim is off to war and Mamie seizes the opportunity to buy up as much property as she can afford at rock-bottom prices. And so it goes, back and forth for a while, patriot and profiteer drawn to each other by sheer animal attraction and yet always moving towards different destinations.

Raoul Walsh makes great use of the wide screen in The Revolt of Mamie Stover, switching between telling close-ups and carefully selected medium shots, only rarely crowding the frame and maintaining the intimacy of the story at all times. Leo Tover’s cinematography is frankly stunning, from the breathtaking backgrounds of the Hawaiian locations to the rich and sumptuous color in Bertha’s house of ill-repute. Sydney Boehm’s script is a characteristically strong one, keeping within the boundaries of the production code but still ensuring the adult themes are not watered down any more than necessary. A bit of reading around here and there tells me that the source novel presents more of a critique of society than the movie does. Not having read it, I can’t comment on that, but I can say that the focus of the film is very much on the people, on the individuals, how they grow and what they learn along the way, something which tends to make a film more involving.

Once again, Walsh defies his reputation as a macho director and demonstrates how well he dealt with films which placed women right at the heart of the story. The melodrama that drives it all  is liberally laced with humor, both broad and subtle, and there is a distinctly humanistic feel to the way the characters are drawn and observed. Neither Walsh nor Boehm are interested in handing out some trite moralistic message. The movie looks at people, warts and all, neither excusing nor explaining them, and the ending, in that classically cyclical fashion, brings us right back to the point where it all began, but the crucial difference is that these characters whose lives have been traced on the screen have grown and developed.

Jane Russell was making some varied and interesting movies around this time, including The Tall Men (also for Walsh) and Foxfire. However, she was soon to move to television and only later drift back to the movies for a cameo playing herself in Ralph Nelson’s rather good Fate is the Hunter and then a couple of pretty depressing A C Lyles westerns.  Mamie Stover offered her a good part as a woman juggling her love for money and material success with her love for Jim Blair, and winning something entirely different and unexpected in the end. Richard Egan brings a tough confidence to his role, and achieves a quiet dignity that is very admirable in the climactic scene. Agnes Moorehead is a highlight as the cunning and hard as nails proprietress, displaying as much burnished brass as her startlingly blonde hair. Joan Leslie was another who was about to move to television after a long and successful career on the big screen but, like her character, she is largely sidelined. And last but not least, Michael Pate scowls most effectively as the bespectacled thug using heavy-handed tactics to keep Bertha’s girls in line.

The Revolt of Mamie Stover was handed a Blu-ray release some years ago by Twilight Time. I never managed to pick up a copy and I don’t believe it has come out anywhere else on that format. However, there are copies to be had from Spain, not ideal copies but watchable enough and in the correct aspect ratio. It took me a long time to catch up with this film and I enjoyed seeing it at last. Walsh, Tover and Boehm combine well behind the cameras, and the cast doesn’t disappoint in front either. This is an entertaining and grown-up movie that sidesteps the typical sugar-coated Hollywood ending yet still manages to tie everything up very satisfactorily.

The People Against O’Hara

“You can’t stop what’s coming.”

Near the end of the 2007 neo-noir No Country for Old Men the homespun truism quoted above is shared with the lead character, a man seeking to make some sort of sense out of a world that is not only passing him by but practically speeding off over the horizon. That feeling of inevitability, of random and relentless occurrences that cannot be avoided but only faced and dealt with if or when they appear, is something which has fueled film noir right from the beginning. The People Against O’Hara (1951) is one of those fatalistic studies of the inevitable, where the unraveling of a crime goes hand in hand with the unraveling of a man’s life.

New York streets by night, rain slicked and neon drenched, a grizzled seaman contemptuous of the noisy jukebox drifts out of a bar that could have been painted by Edward Hopper. Out on the street he pauses by the kerbside and is startled by the sound of gunfire from across the way, where a killer and his victim are silhouetted in the glare spilling from a doorway overlooking the sidewalk. The identity of the dead man is soon established, and the forensics team are quick to quick to obtain evidence of who had been driving the car used for the getaway. There is no doubt about the name of the wheelman, but establishing who did the shooting may not be such a cut and dried affair. The prime suspect is the owner of that vehicle, Johnny O’Hara (James Arness). The viewer knows he can’t have done the deed as he is shown out of town trying to break up for good with a distraught and emotional girl. And there, in the words of a well-known prince of Denmark, is the rub: that clinging, desperate girl is the wife of a notorious gangland boss (Eduardo Ciannelli), a man known to visit unspeakable and horrific vengeance on anyone stupid enough to cross him. Under the circumstances, it should not come as any surprise to see O’Hara make a run for it when as yet unidentified but armed men approach him on his way home. Nor is it hard to understand his steadfast refusal to offer an alibi for the time the murder took place, not when he is charged, not when a blatantly crooked witness falsely implicates him, and not even when he finds himself on trial for his life.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is an extraordinarily delicate situation, one requiring deft legal skills if the accused is to have any chance of beating the rap and remaining in one piece. The O’Hara family’s hopes are pinned on one man, noted attorney James Curtayne (Spencer Tracy). However, this may be a distinctly shaky foundation on which to build anything, least of all the fate of a man facing a capital charge. Curtayne has retreated from criminal trial work, the pressures and strains of which had exacerbated his alcohol dependency. Still, it’s a rare Irishman who can cast off the cloak of sentimentality with ease, and the pitiful entreaty of old acquaintances fallen on hard times is a siren call that is hard to resist. The odds are poor though; the case, despite being shored up by a wall of deceit, is a tough one, the client is paralyzed by an unholy combination of fear and nobility, the D.A. (John Hodiak) is sharp and dedicated, and Curtayne knows he is slipping, that the ground is falling away beneath him while he is too weary and damaged to regain a firm footing. It’s that inevitability, a remorseless sliding sensation, one which although it cannot be halted may yet offer one last shot at a form of redemption.

The People Against O’Hara was the first of three films that John Sturges and Spencer Tracy would make together, being followed by the better known Bad Day at Black Rock and The Old Man and the Sea. It hails from that relatively early period in Sturges’ career when he was working in all kinds of genres. He would really be in his element within a few years as the widescreen process took off and he quickly became one of its top practitioners with a wonderful eye for composition and placement. The pictures he moved on to direct often afforded him the opportunity to incorporate landscapes and outdoor shooting in general into his visual toolkit, and The People Against O’Hara also features some excellent use of genuine Manhattan locations. Having John Alton as cinematographer practically guarantees a strong visual aesthetic. Equally adept in color or black and white (his work with Anthony Mann is justly celebrated but he created some terrific images for Vincente Minnelli too, for example) he effortlessly brings a classic noir look to Sturges’ movie. The opening and closing scenes in particular are bathed in impenetrable, stifling shadow, characters in the foreground having their attention drawn into and fixed upon what Alton has highlighted deep within the background, and the viewer is hooked and reeled in in exactly the same way.

When I think of Spencer Tracy in legal dramas I automatically picture him in a couple of late career movies for Stanley Kramer (Inherit the Wind & Judgment at Nuremberg) and I suspect I’m not alone in doing so. As such, the image of characters with strong moral convictions and a deep-seated personal nobility is conjured up. Therefore, it’s something of a shock to see him don a rather tarnished crown in The People Against O’Hara. Here Tracy is not so much the staunch and steadfast pillar of legal ethics as a compromised, if not quite crumbling, monument to former greatness. He’s playing a man running on the fumes of a reputation, someone we get to meet on the downside of his career, shaken by alcoholism and ill-health and all the insecurities and frailties that come along for the ride. It’s perfectly clear that his heart is in the right place, although his willingness to head back into the criminal courts may be motivated not only by old loyalties and a sense of altruism, but also by an undeniable hunger for the old battleground and the possibility of new, revitalizing victories. So the honor and nobility are there, but they have acquired a vaguely seedy quality, coated by a film of failure and uncertainty, and Tracy communicates all that so well in those courtroom scenes where his frustration at his own faltering efforts and foggy thinking leave him humiliated and desperate, witnessing his hopes disintegrating before his eyes yet fully aware of his own impotence in the face of catastorophe. It’s that encroaching despair that drives him back towards the bottle and poor judgment, and opens the door to the dangerous road he ultimately opts for in order to justify his client’s faith and redeem himself.

John Hodiak is quiet, competent and scrupulous to a fault as the D.A. whose professional life is, by contrast, following a very different trajectory. The easy option in a story such as this would be to have the D.A. detouring down devious or flat out dishonest legal byroads. However, the calm decency which Hodiak conveys so effectively emphasizes the crisis unfolding in the life of his rival. It is not only the clever writing though, the coolly underplayed performance makes what might have been just another clichéd role into something real and credible. Similarly, old pro Pat O’Brien portrays his veteran cop in a nuanced and sympathetic way, neither as saint nor thug but as a normal human being able to empathize with the flawed people around him. Diana Lynn’s turn as Tracy’s anxious and devoted daughter is attractively done too; her big scene confronting her father as he is on the point of crashing spectacularly off the wagon provided an opportunity to ramp up the drama and she hits the right emotional balance in those moments.

The trend in film noir in the 1950s saw a slow drift away from the dark personal dilemmas that had been commonly explored in the preceding decade towards the broader social malaise represented by organized crime. A movie such as The People Against O’Hara feels like something of a halfway house. The mob connection heavily impacts the lives of the characters but the main focus of the film remains on the trials of Curtayne, the literal one he’s fighting in the courtroom and the spiritual one being waged for his heart and soul. All told, it makes for an attractive blend. Mob related material has a tendency to lean into the showier side in general and one of the flashier performances comes courtesy of William Campbell’s cheap hood. He is all smirks and smarm, faux indignation jostling for position with sugarcoated insincerity, adding layers of slime and a sickening unctuousness. Considerably higher up the criminal food chain comes Eduardo Ciannelli. He brings real menace to his part, those saurian features hinting at medieval malice. Even little throwaway scenes like his sharp exchange with an apparent laborer careless enough to splash his expensive clothes, leading to him dismissively talking about this “paisano” and making cracks about cutting out tongues, before revealing that the pleading supplicant is in fact his own father carry a real chill. In support, Jay C Flippen’s broadly sketched Scandinavian sailor is a fun addition and there are small parts for Arthur Shields (who contributed many a telling and memorable moment in a number of films for John Ford among others), Richard Anderson and, in a practically “blink and you’ll miss him” role, a young Charles Bronson.

The People Against O’Hara was released on DVD in the US by Warner Brothers as part of the Archive Collection a decade ago, and there is a Spanish edition on the market too. It is not a film that gets talked about all that often, probably getting lost in among other more celebrated titles in the respective filmographies of Spencer Tracy and John Sturges. I like it quite a bit as it hits a lot of the themes and motifs that draw me to the movies, and the quality of the personnel involved makes it undeniably attractive.

Call Northside 777

To quote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small.” But what happens if the person trapped between those relentless millstones is actually innocent? What if the pitiless wheels of justice are slowly crushing the wrong man? That’s the conundrum at the heart of Henry Hathaway’s Call Northside 777 (1948). It offers up a premise which is undeniably noir and is frequently referred to as such. I have hung that label on it myself here, not only for the sake of convenience but due to some of its visuals and, of course, that nightmarish scenario on which it is founded. To be honest, it is a socially aware crime picture first and foremost, and I quite understand that some may object to calling it anything else.

The credits are stark, with an austere, no-nonsense quality – crisply typed letters stamped clearly on plain white paper. It’s a matter-of-fact approach mirrored by the voice-over and the documentary tone of the opening, one which takes us back to the final days of the prohibition era in Chicago. In case anyone is unaware of the background, the violence and rampant lawlessness of those days is deftly evoked before attention is focused on one particular killing. The winter of 1932 saw the murder of a beat cop in the parlor of a dingy speakeasy. The bare bones of the affair are laid out before us as well as the arrest and assembly of evidence against the prime suspect, one Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte). Both he and his alleged partner in crime are duly convicted and sentenced to 99 years imprisonment. That’s that, one might say. However, this is only the beginning of our story, and the narrative really kicks in with the appearance of a classified ad in one of the city dailies offering a reward of $5000 for information leading to the exoneration of Wiecek. This catches the eye of newspaper editor Kelly (Lee J Cobb), who asks one of his reporters to look into it. The reporter is a man by the name of McNeal (James Stewart), one of those flip and casual hacks who has yet to hear a sob story he’s not dubious of. What he finds is an old Polish lady (Kasia Orzazewski) scrubbing floors; she’s spent the last eleven long years of her life doing this based on her unwavering faith in her son and her iron certainty that he is no murderer. Her idea was to raise enough money to spark someone’s interest in the case, and if it’s not enough then she plans to keep on skivvying till it is. McNeal is an old pro and has grown a thick hide of cynicism, but he’s not without a heart. True devotion and faith in people is a rare currency and being confronted with it like this plants a seed in what’s left of the reporter’s conscience. What follows is an absorbing search in the past and the present for the truth and a campaign to overturn a miscarriage of justice, starting out as a slow walk and gradually building up to a desperate sprint towards vindication.

Henry Hathaway was a pioneer of the documentary noir approach in the post-war period, with The House on 92nd Street often cited as one of the, if not the, very first examples of this style of filmmaking. While I wouldn’t say I am a fan of the technique on all occasions, it can be powerful and effective when used well. Call Northside 777 is one such occasion, the measured pace and the confidence to allow the natural drama of the story sweep the viewer along is always in evidence. Hathaway was a genuinely great director, a man with a wonderful sense of cinema’s possibilities; he coaxed fine performances from actors time and again and had a way of drawing one into the stories he put up on the screen. The virtual absence of music outside of the credits and the ambient sounds of cheap bars, the assurance of his framing and shot selection, all combine to create suspense from something as mundane as a light flashing on a switchboard, or a needle flickering on a polygraph chart. His spatial awareness is superb too, surely no-one could have better communicated the cold despairing sterility of the prison complex than he did with that shot of endless blank cages opening out onto silent and empty gangways. Then in the latter stages, as the hunt moves to the seedy underbelly of the city, Joe MacDonald’s cinematography conjures fantastic visions of shadow-draped decay.

Without wishing to traipse over old ground yet again, there is such a richness to the screen work of James Stewart after he returned from service in WWII. Capra and It’s a Wonderful Life saw him burrowing into deep reserves and some of that comes through in Call Northside 777 too. Hitchcock and Mann got the very best out of him but Hathaway had him tap into some of his inner conflict as well, just not as far. The narrative requires a shift in his character’s position as the story plays out and it’s to his credit that this is achieved with a smoothness that feels wholly credible. Lee J Cobb could sometimes slip into “big” performances, which though enjoyable can be distracting too. However, he’s nicely restrained as the man whose quiet certainty keeps the investigation moving forward. There’s a playful aspect to his relationship with Stewart, highlighted by his tendency to bend the truth about his soft heart, and Stewart’s making sure he knows he won’t be taken in by it.

Richard Conte was another who was capable of brashness and showiness, but he keeps all of that carefully under wraps. His is a remarkably quiet performance, consistent with a man conditioned to keeping his head down and aware that taking the long view is the best way to survive. His one moment of breaking through that cautious front comes when Stewart has thoughtlessly jeopardized the cocoon of respectability he has painstakingly built around his former family, and even here his anger is contained and dignified.  Helen Walker has a simple role as Stewart’s wife, nothing demanding but she brings warmth to it. There are small parts for John McIntire and E G Marshall among others. I also want to mention the work of Kasia Orzazewski as Conte’s mother. It’s the kind of part where it would have been easy to allow an excess of sentiment to spill out. Yet the actress holds that in check, her pride and grit and sorrow are all apparent but they never overwhelm and consequently she touches the viewer’s heart every bit as much as she did that of Stewart’s skeptical reporter.

Call Northside 777 has long been available on DVD. To the best of my knowledge, the only version on Blu-ray is a German disc, which doesn’t sound as though it represents a major upgrade. Seeing as this is a Fox title , it’s hard to say if there is any possibility of further editions appearing. This is a movie I first saw back in my early teens. It gripped me at the time and the intervening years haven’t altered my opinion of it any. It is a fine picture and well worth a revisit.

The Man from Bitter Ridge

Treading well worn paths is a practice that tends to be looked on with a certain disdain with regard to any artistic endeavor, and with good reason. If familiarity does not necessarily have breed contempt, it can surely sap the enthusiasm and interest of the viewer. While that may be broadly true, it should also be acknowledged that watching movies is not an activity we indulge in for only one reason. As a rule, the better the film, the greater the challenge or stimulation offered, but that is not to say that  work providing the comfort and reassurance of the familiar has no worth. The Man from Bitter Ridge (1955) breaks no new ground, the situations and characters are all recognizable “types” that even casual western watchers will have seen on countless occasions. For all that though, it is the kind of movie that is hard to actively dislike.

The story begins with something of a bang, namely the explosion that brings down a tree and blocks the trail of a stagecoach. The purpose is to facilitate a robbery, one carried out with precision and ruthlessness. A man ends up dead for noticing more than he ought to and the thieves make their escape. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say all but one of the thieves. A passing stranger suffers the misfortune of being held up by one of the fugitives who finds himself in need of a mount as his own horse has gone lame. This stranger is Jeff Carr (Lex Barker) and his ill-starred encounter means he almost winds up being lynched in error.  All of this happens in the first five minutes or so and a lot of plot detail is packed in here,  not least the fact the stage has been robbed by those working for Rance Jackman (John Dehner), local bigwig and candidate for sheriff in the upcoming election. To further complicate matters, the posse members who were so keen on stringing up Carr in a hurry are headed up by Jackman’s younger brother Linc (Warren Stevens). There’s probably enough story right there but the script is arguably overloaded as the idea of a corrupt man seeking ever greater power and influence is mixed in with a simmering feud between cattlemen and sheep herders, the latter group represented by Alec Black (Stephen McNally). Of course no yarn can be truly complete without some love interest, ideally involving conflict. That comes courtesy of a romantic triangle, the points of which are Carr, Black and Holly Kenton (Mara Corday), another of the sheep herders. As such, we have a decidedly tangled skein on our hands, although it is all unraveled (via brawls, gunfights, fire and fury) in a largely satisfactory manner by the time the credits roll about an hour and a quarter later.

Mention the name of Jack Arnold to movie fans and the chances are you’ll hear comments about such Sci-Fi classics such as It Came from Outer Space, The Incredible Shrinking Man or The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Nevertheless, as was the case with most directors of the time, he worked in a range of genres and turned out some fine pictures in all of them. Among his movies are a handful of westerns; Red Sundown and No Name on the Bullet are right out of the top drawer and are highly recommended. The Man from Bitter Ridge is, without question, a lesser effort. I prefer to look at a movie in terms of what it is and what it aims for as opposed to what it isn’t or doesn’t aspire to be. Still, there’s no denying that there’s not much depth to this one. I may be using the wrong label here, but I tend to think of films like this as matinee movies – straightforward, no-frills, unpretentious pictures that tell their stories in a pacy and entertaining way, no more and no less. Taken on those terms, it’s fine and does what it says on the tin. Another bonus is that “look” which is to be found in most Universal-International westerns, the visual aesthetic is appealing and (again) familiar, the very least one might expect from a cinematographer as talented as Russell Metty.

As for the performances, Lex Barker followed up his stint as Tarzan with a number of western roles and he would do further work in the genre when he later moved to Europe, especially in Germany. His role here is of a type – an undercover operative for the stagecoach company – that Randolph Scott played on more than one occasion. Of course Barker had previously been cast opposite Scott a couple of years before in the more interesting Thunder Over the Plains for André De Toth. He cuts a heroic figure and acquits himself just fine in the action scenes, of which there is no shortage, but he’s probably a bit too sunny and upbeat. Stephen McNally is his typically sharp self, assured and polished and enjoying his time as one of the good guys.

Mara Corday is an actress I am always happy to see and she is very appealing as the pistol-packing sheep farmer who finds her affections trapped betwixt and between McNally and Barker . She was in the middle of a run of generally good movies at this point, although I have to say she had a far more absorbing part in Joseph Pevney’s Foxfire that same year. With regard to villainy, it’s difficult to go far wrong when there is a solid lineup composed of John Dehner, Ray Teal, Myron Healey and Warren Stevens available. Their characters are all entirely one-dimensional, but most entertainingly so.

The Man from Bitter Ridge was released on a handsome DVD some time ago by Koch Media in Germany, but I think that may have drifted out of print now and it appears to have been replaced by a Blu-ray from the same company. The older disc looks pretty good, offering a colorful widescreen presentation of this brisk and undemanding western. I know Jack Arnold made better and more original movies and The Man From Bitter Ridge shouldn’t be seen as representative of his work in general, but it is a relaxing and mostly fun watch, and sometimes that’s good enough.