The Furies on Blu-ray

It’s just come to my attention that Criterion in the US are upgrading Anthony Mann’s The Furies (1950) to Blu-ray, it’s due out in April.

This is an impressive if imperfect work, the western, film noir and melodrama converging in Anthony Mann’s movie, adapted from the Niven Busch novel. I wrote about the film here almost nine years ago (now that’s a sobering thought!) and it’s good to hear it’s getting reissued in high definition. Unfortunately, I’m locked in to Region B for Blu-ray but I’d like to think it might come on the market in Europe, maybe via Eureka if not Criterion’s UK division.

Canyon River

Back in the saddle. It’s been a while now since I’ve featured a western on this site, not that I’ve been consciously avoiding them, it’s just that other material has been occupying my thoughts as far as posting is concerned. Added to that is the fact I like to vary the content, to try to keep staleness at bay if nothing else. Anyway, I’ve found myself watching, and indeed writing up, a number of CinemaScope movies lately – others will follow in the weeks ahead. The first of those to make an appearance is probably the least of them, which is not to say it’s a bad movie. Canyon River (1956) is perhaps unremarkable yet it’s also entertaining and, what’s even more important, quietly satisfying in the way so many 1950s westerns manage to be.

There can be few things more satisfying than seeing a bullying loudmouth such as Robert J Wilke’s character have his pistol spectacularly kicked out of his hand and then get laid out by two well aimed haymakers. The man meting out this punishment in the opening scene is Steve Patrick (George Montgomery), a Wyoming rancher who may be facing financial difficulties but isn’t taking anything lying down. No, this is a man with a plan, albeit a plan which plenty of people will tell him he’s crazy to attempt. In brief, he wants to introduce a new cross breed of cattle, something which will involve a big gamble on his part and necessitate driving a herd along the Oregon Trail in the opposite direction and out of season. Aside from the hardships to be faced, there’s also the challenge of finding a crew willing to go along with this, not to mention the fact that the man he considers his closest friend (Peter Graves) is secretly plotting to take both his life and his herd. If all that didn’t represent sufficient difficulty, there’s also the matter of a young widow (Marcia Henderson) and her son (Richard Eyer) to consider.

What Canyon River presents is a fairly standard trail drive western, blending in that familiar yet always welcome 1950s focus on redemption and the potential for a fresh start. The redemptive aspect is related mainly (though not exclusively) to the greed and betrayal of Peter Graves’ character. I’m not entering spoiler territory here as the treachery is revealed to the viewer very early on and the knowledge of that adds a layer of suspense to the plot. How, or indeed whether, Graves will redeem himself is not resolved until late in proceedings and in the meantime another thread of redemption – more straightforward this time – is explored. This concerns the crew hired by Montgomery to undertake his unconventional drive. Well, they are an unconventional group, headed up by Alan Hale Jr and consisting of a ragtag bunch of criminals and ex-convicts. For them, this represents an opportunity to find a path back into society, a means of escaping destructive get-rich-quick schemes and winning back some degree of self-respect. Last but by no means least, the whole affair offers a chance of a fresh start for Montgomery himself along with Henderson and Eyer.

Canyon River, from Daniel B Ullman’s script, is a remake of the 1951 Bill Elliott western The Longhorn. Not having seen the earlier version, I can’t comment on that or make any comparisons but I do like this iteration. A number of films directed by Harmon Jones have been featured here in the past and I’ve found them all quite enjoyable. While this is a modest picture overall there is plenty to admire, from the attractive widescreen imagery, shot by director of photography Ellsworth Fredericks, to the feelgood positivity of it all, and that latter aspect is something I think we can all do with sampling in these stubbornly trying times.

A big part of what makes Canyon River work so well is the presence of George Montgomery. He imbues the part of Steve Patrick with an enthusiasm and verve that is infectious. However, what is even more important is the generosity and openness of the character; this is the key to the success of the central theme. It’s his simple faith in himself and human nature in general that draws in, inspires, and indeed shames some of the other characters. The sheer likeability of the man makes Graves’ betrayal of him appear even less appealing. I liked Marcia Henderson’s work in Back to God’s Country and she brings great warmth to her role in Canyon River, making the romance which blossoms between her and Montgomery especially sweet. This also applies to Richard Eyer, who is wonderful as the hero worshiping youngster. At one point, after a hard day on the trail, the boy quietly falls asleep by the fireside and Alan Hale’s reformed outlaw spots this.  Demonstrating unexpected tenderness, he carefully picks him up and gently deposits him in the wagon; it’s a fleeting moment but a telling one and a delightful little grace note.

Hale is extremely engaging all the way through and his gratitude is in stark contrast to the jealousy and duplicity of Peter Graves. Graves does fine work portraying this, and he also succeeds in getting across the inner turmoil of the character as the doubts and guilt slowly grow within him. Other villainous parts are taken by perennial louse Robert J Wilke, whom I spoke of above, as well as a somewhat underused Jack Lambert and Walter Sande. I sometimes feel no western would be complete were Ray Teal not to appear at some point, and he obligingly pops up as the cattleman who sells his herd to Montgomery.

Canyon River was an Allied Artists production and therefore it can be found on DVD via the Warner Archive. It’s a reasonably good looking transfer, in the correct aspect ratio and boasting strong, attractive colors. As far as I know, there are other copies available on assorted European labels. I remember coming across this movie on TV years ago and thinking at the time that it was passable but nothing special. Revisiting the movie recently, I came away with a far more favorable impression. Nevertheless, I don’t want to oversell it and have people thinking it’s some unmined gem that has just been unearthed. It is no world beater yet the mood, the message, and some good performances make for a very pleasurable 80 minutes of entertainment.

House of Strangers

Back in 2015 I looked at Broken Lance, a superior western and a remake of an earlier movie. I remarked at the time that I preferred the later version of the story and that’s still the case. Nevertheless, House of Strangers (1949), the original adaptation of Jerome Weidman’s novel, is an excellent piece of work when viewed in its own right. All versions and adaptations of stories bring something different to the table: the sensibilities of the filmmakers involved, themes added or removed, highlighted or suppressed. Where Broken Lance broadened and extended the scope of the material, House of Strangers retains a tighter focus overall.

A crowded sidewalk, bustling and bursting with life, and amid it all the eye is drawn to one solitary figure making his way through the vibrant mass, a detached and determined figure. He pauses before the imposing facade of a bank, the guard inside eyeing him fishily through the polished plate glass. This is Max Monetti (Richard Conte), once a sharp and arrogant lawyer but now just another ex-con. Actually, he’s a bit more than that; the bank was once the domain of his late father Gino Monetti (Edward G Robinson) before it was taken over by three of his sons, and before Max spent seven years as a guest of the state for jury tampering. Some of the brashness is still there though, and it’s enough to worry his siblings. It’s here that the lengthy flashback which occupies most the running time kicks in, showing how a family turned upon itself and slowly disintegrated, how rivalry and dissatisfaction became the seeds of hatred, how an old woman’s heart was broken and how a once grand home was transformed into a mausoleum to pernicious pride.

As in the image above, the past is forever peering over the shoulders of the characters. And it’s not just the malign spirit of Gino Monetti haunting his sons and poisoning their hearts, for even the old man in life was haunted by the specter of penury and subservience. The whole movie concerns itself with characters racing to keep a step ahead of their past, be it the stifling “old world” traditions that Gino professes to be desperate to throw off while apparently reveling in their trappings or another generation’s desire to be free of the too firm hold of an overcritical patriarch. Underpinning all of this is the concept of revenge or retribution, and the corrosive effect it has for all who drink from that particular cup.

I opened by speaking of a narrower focus, and I feel House of Strangers actively seeks to present a sense of restrictiveness. Instead of showing family as a symbol of fertility, it offers up a view of a stagnant and suffocating household, and I think it’s no coincidence that much of the action is rooted in the Monetti house and the old bank. Both structures have an old-fashioned ambience, a workplace where the sons are kept firmly in place – literally caged in the case of the elder brother Joe (Luther Adler) – and with limited options, and a home that is almost overpowering in the sheer weight and oppressiveness of its decor. The contrast with the light, spacious and airy apartment of Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward), the one person in the movie with an outward-looking perspective, and the one who represents the chance for a clean break with the past and new start on the west coast, is marked and unmistakable.

Susan Hayward’s presence adds much to this movie. Her drive, allure, and most of all her infectious self-confidence represent the best hope of salvation for Richard Conte’s Max. The frank and witty dialogue those two trade is a highlight, giving an edge to their passion and, in Conte’s case, allowing his character to become much more rounded. Joseph L Mankiewicz, who apparently had an uncredited hand in the writing alongside Philip Yordan, was noted for the use of sophisticated dialogue and it’s a real boon in this picture. The visuals and themes are well handled and well realized, but the smartness of the script gives everything extra vigor.

Richard Conte could always be relied on when you needed someone tough and streetwise, and he starts out incredibly sure of himself, unpleasantly so in fact. It’s largely through his interaction with Hayward though that he unbends gradually, looking out instead of in, realizing what to embrace and what to reject. Edward G Robinson plays a man it’s hard to like – even in his more expansive and beneficent moods there’s a shade of self-importance about him. As the story progresses, this latter quality develops, eventually running to bitterness and, ultimately, spite and vindictiveness. With a trio such as Robinson, Hayward and Conte headlining, there’s not a lot of space left for others to make their mark. That said, Luther Adler is subtly impressive, enduring the pettiness and humiliations as he broods and nurtures a deep resentment. In support Paul Valentine and Efrem Zimbalist Jr are the other two browbeaten offspring, while the imposing Hope Emerson seems an unlikely mother to the diminutive Debra Paget.

House of Strangers was released on DVD years ago as part of the Fox Film Noir line and the image is pleasing if not perfect, with a few trailers and a commentary track by Foster Hirsch as supplements. All told, this is the kind of highly polished picture one would expect from 20th Century Fox and Joseph L Mankiewicz. The shift to a western setting allowed Broken Lance to successfully explore other ideas and make it a more satisfying experience. However, I like to examine every movie on its own merits and I feel House of Strangers deserves to be praised for what it is rather than disparaged for what it isn’t.

Scene of the Crime

It’s arguable that, at its peak, RKO was the studio that appeared most comfortable producing films noir. If, on the other hand, you were to ask which of the majors was the one whose aesthetic felt least suited to that characteristically bleak style of moviemaking, the chances are MGM would come out on top. Everything changes though, and by the tail  end of the 1940s MGM was moving towards a different style, and as Dore Schary the former head of production at the aforementioned RKO took up the reins he brought a flavor of his previous home with him. Scene of the Crime (1949) is an entertaining piece of work from this transitional period for the studio, a superficially soft-boiled noir that boasts some surprising toughness just below the surface.

The 1950s would see film noir focus on organized crime with increasing regularity but nothing happens with a flash and puff of smoke. It was a gradual process and the drift away from the compromised individual as protagonist to wider society and its institutions wasn’t so much dramatic as stealthy. An urban street at night (or a backlot representation of one anyway) is a typical noir motif, as is the crash of gunfire, the lurch and fall of a fatally wounded body, the words of a gunman rapped out as abruptly and tersely as the bark of his revolver, and the snarling motor of the getaway car. And all that’s left is the torn remains of a man clinging to the sidewalk. The man in question was a cop, a detective in the wrong place at the wrong time, but with an unexplained and bulky roll of bills in his pocket. Questions naturally arise, not only with respect the identity of the killer but the source of the cash too. The answers to those questions will be ferreted out by Mike Conovan (Van Johnson), a somewhat stereotypical detective with a somewhat unusual  private life; he’s married to a glamorous ex-model (Arlene Dahl) and gets to hobnob with the smart set when he’s not combing the gutter for suspects. He’s one of those cops who’s wedded to the job as much as he is to his wife and she’s not that happy about the whole deal. So there’s this background tension simmering away, the domestic pressures adding a layer of conflict, but it’s a tension of the MacGuffin variety, of much more concern to the characters than it is to the viewer. Still, there is tension to engage us, the painstaking progress of the investigation, the careful fitting together of the disparate pieces as a picture slowly forms before our eyes, one that’s neatly embroidered by the presence of a quirky snitch (Norman Lloyd) and a seductive stripper (Gloria De Haven).

Earlier this year, I wrote about another Roy Rowland directed film noir Rogue Cop (which ended up being not only the most commented piece of the year but of all time on this site) and noted how the visuals had grown brighter and starker than had been the case earlier in the classic cycle. There’s a touch of that in Scene of the Crime but Rowland and cinematographer Paul Vogel still mix in the more traditional look from time to time, a stakeout with a flickering neon sign outside the window springs to mind, and then there’s that toughness I alluded to at the beginning. While the ultimate fate of Norman Lloyd’s memorable stool pigeon isn’t shown explicitly, it is described and it is grim. There’s a hard edged fist fight with one of the prime suspects, the climactic shoot out that ends up brutally and painfully, and of course there’s also a delightfully sour and cynical double cross which adds some spice to one of the more significant plot strands.I don’t know how much of this is derived from the original source material but I do know that screenwriter Charles Schnee was no slouch and was responsible for turning out some extraordinarily good scripts (They Live by Night, The Furies, Born to Be Bad, Westward the Women, The Bad and the Beautiful, Two Weeks in Another Town) in his relatively short life. In the final analysis though, there will be those who will say Scene of the Crime is essentially film noir lite, pointing to the lack of grit in the lead’s home life and the upbeat ending. I’ll not dispute any of that, but I will say that none of it troubles me much as I’m not especially keen on any extra helping of nihilism at the end of this particular year.

I don’t suppose Van Johnson would be anyone’s first pick for a noir lead, but he was nothing if not versatile and I have to say I’ve always found him very watchable in a range of movies from Brigadoon through to The Caine Mutiny. Given the nature of his role in Scene of the Crime, he’s actually a pretty good piece of casting. He’s very comfortable in the society scenes and equally convincing doing his dogged detective routine or slugging it out with hoodlums. I reckon Arlene Dahl got a bit of raw deal with this one though. Her part is barely developed and she’s not given much opportunity to do anything other than look glamorous or vexed, or both. I was watching her in No Questions Asked the other week and I feel she had something more to get her teeth into in that one. In a year that has seen us lose some big names from the golden age of cinema it’s kind of comforting to watch Ms Dahl share screen time with Norman Lloyd and think they’re both still around at 95 and 106 respectively. There’s very good support from an enigmatic Gloria De Haven, as well as solid and dependable work from John McIntire, Leon Ames, Anthony Caruso and Jerome Cowan among others.

Scene of the Crime can be found as part of the Warner Archive and looks quite good. The movie may not have the diamond heart of the more revered films noir but it is an engaging little picture that won’t disappoint either. Check it out if you can.

This will be the last post of  2020 for me, an odd year for sure. It’s been undeniably tragic for some, challenging for all, and yet it should be remembered that adversity ultimately breeds strength and positivity. From a purely selfish perspective, I have to say that one of the bright spots has come from seeing the site grow in popularity as never before. None of that would be possible without the marvelous contributions of all the knowledgeable and enthusiastic visitors it has been my pleasure to play host to. So let me say thank you to all of you, and may you all enjoy a happy, healthy and fulfilling New Year in 2021.

A Trio of Dusters

With the holiday season drawing ever closer it’s a pleasure to host another slate of less familiar (or less familiar to this viewer anyway) vintage TV, highlighted by Gordon Gates.
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Last time I touched on television it was a trio of Edmond O’Brien noir. This time I think three western TV episodes would hit the spot. All three of these episodes I consider to be top flight. The actors include Lee Marvin, Bev Garland, Steve Forrest Robert Horton, Warren Oates and Robert Culp. So here we go.
First up is the pilot episode of the 1965 series, – “A Man Called Shenandoah” – The Onslaught – The series, which ran for 34 episodes, starred Robert Horton.

It is the dead of winter, a lone rider, Robert Horton, enters a small town. He books a room and a bath. While he is stripping down for the bath, a gunman, Richard Devon, breaks in and starts blasting. Horton just escapes with his life after knocking Devon down with a solid punch. He grabs Devon’s pistol and hurries down the back stairs. Once outside, two more men start firing at him. Horton returns fire and kills the two.

With only his pants on, and Devon’s pistol, he grabs a horse and flees into the foul weather. Devon recovers and follows Horton. He tracks down the half frozen Horton and puts two rounds from his Winchester into him, one in the shoulder and one in the head. He then leaves Horton to die.

A short time later, two prospectors come upon Horton. They sling him across the packhorse and cart him back to the nearest town. The two wonder if he might be an outlaw, so they stop at the local law to see if there is a reward. No luck there, so they drop Horton at the saloon.

The local doc, Noah Keen, is called to have a look at the unconscious and battered Horton. He removes the bullet from Horton’s shoulder and bandages the head wound, which turns out to be minor. It had simply knocked him unconscious.

Horton is then hauled upstairs and put to bed. Beverly Garland, the singer dancer at the saloon, tends his wounds. Horton comes around 3-4 days later and asks where he is. Doc Keen asks him how he feels etc and what is his name. Horton is unable to answer. He has no memory of who he is, or how he ended up being shot. Several more days go by and Horton swiftly regains his strength. His memory though is still drawing a blank. Needing to call him something, Doc Keen starts calling him Shenandoah, the name of Keen’s hometown.

A few more days pass and who should show up in the saloon? Gunman Devon of course. He knocks back a few drinks and starts making some unwanted moves on Miss Garland. When the barkeep steps up to stop the unwanted attention, Devon pistol whips the man.

Horton, hearing the screams of Garland, grabs a pistol from the Doc’s case and roars downstairs. Devon’s eyes go wide as he sees Horton, “You! I’ll kill you this time for sure!” Yells Devon as he goes for his pistol. Horton is faster off the mark and drills Devon in the chest, killing him.

Horton walks up to the corpse and looks at Devon. “He knew me.” He whispers.

So starts the tale of, A Man Called Shenandoah. The series then follows Horton as he searches for clues as to who he is, and what he was.

This is a pretty brisk moving episode that was directed by Paul Wendkos. Wendkos directed the noir, The Burglar. This is a great looking series that features some wonderful looking opening and closing credits film work. (b/w)

Second on the bill is OUTLAWS – Thirty a Month – 1960 This is the first episode of the 1960- 1962 western series. The series is set in the Oklahoma Territory. Barton MacLane is in charge of a pair of Marshals who police the area. Don Collier and Jock Gaynor play the Deputy Marshals.

Collier and Gaynor have just returned to town to report to MacLane. They have been on a fruitless chase for the manager of the local bank. The man had pilfered the bank funds and vanished.

Also hitting town, are the hands off a just completed cattle drive with their pay burning a hole in their pockets. One of the men, Steve Forrest, heads straight to the bank. He is finished with the life of a cow-hand. He has been saving his pay for the last 10 years. He intends to buy a ranch and raise cattle himself.

Forrest finds the bank padlocked and a closed sign on the door. He asks a passing man what is going on. Forrest is devastated when he hears the news about the manager. He heads off to talk to the law. “Nothing we can do till, or if we catch the man.” Collier tells Forrest. “We just got back from 3 days on his trail with no luck.” Forrest hangs his head and wanders out and down the street.

Three of Forrest’s fellow cowpunchers, Gary Walberg, Warren Oates and Robert Culp are living it up at the saloon. Booze, girls and some poor gambling skills soon have all their pay gone. All three end up in the town jail on drunk and disorderly.

Released the next morning, the three head for the stables. They see Forrest sitting under a tree staring at the ground. They ask Forrest if he needs hands for his new ranch. Forrest tells them about the manager and the stolen funds. ” I don’t want to spend another 10 years to save up four thousand dollars. There must be a way to do it.” The 4 men all sit and wish aloud for better times. The oldest, Walberg, recalls his days years before when he rode for a bit with the Dalton boys robbing trains etc.

Needless to say the old light-bulb goes on in Forrest’s head. They should all pull a payroll robbery of a train. Walberg and Oates are game though Culp is a tad reluctant. The other three finally talk him into joining the enterprise.

They know the regular Friday train carries a payroll on it. They plan on stopping the train at a small station outside of town. They stop the train and hold the engine crew under guard. Forrest forces the conductor to call the payroll guard to open the freight car door. He does, but has a rifle handy, which he pulls on Forrest. Forrest drills the man right through the head.

He then tells the conductor to open the safe. It turns out though that only the guard knew the combination. The four-some now decide to blow open the safe.

Oates is not at all happy with how things are now going. A robbery, OK, but murder? He grabs Culp and suggests that Culp, Walberg and himself beat the feet. Culp says it is too late as murder has been done.

The blast rips open one of the safe doors. All that is there is a bag of coins. The paper money is still locked inside. Bad luck on top of bad luck as they used all their explosives. They take the coins and ride off. A day’s hard ride later they stop at a small town general store. They need food and supplies.

The owner, Dub Taylor, senses something is wrong and says so. Forrest belts him and grabs up the supply sack. They race for their horses to scurry out of town. Taylor however gives Oates both barrels of a shotgun before Oates is out of range. Everything continues to go downhill as far as the robbers are concerned. The townsfolk hear of the robbery and the $5,000 reward offered by the railroad for the capture of the bandits. First, a wire is sent to the Marshal’s office. Then a posse rides out to “collect” the reward.

The posse loses interest in catching the bandits when two of them are shot dead. The brisk exchange of gunfire also results in the death of robber Walberg. Collecting the dead, the posse heads home. They meet Marshal’s Collier and Gaynor on the road and point them the right way.

The badly wounded Oates is slowing the remaining men down. Collier and Gaynor quickly catch up which results in another exchange of rounds. This time Forrest catches a round. Culp is bent over Oates as he mumbles, “I thought it would be fun to be an outlaw.” Oates then dies.

Culp yells out to the Lawmen that he gives up. The wounded Forrest staggers off in the other direction. He looks out over the countryside and says, “All I wanted was a piece of land.” Then he drops to the ground, dead.

After burying Oates and Forrest, Culp says to Collier, “All we got was $120 in coins for the four of us. $30 each, the same as we make working cattle every month.”

Great episode with an outstanding guest star cast. Change the era to 1948-55 and make it about truckers or such, and it would be a cracker-jack noir. (B/W)

Last up is an episode of, GENERAL ELECTRIC THEATER: The Doctors of Pawnee Kill 1957.  There were 300 plus episodes made of this anthology series. This one is episode 19 from season 5.

The episode takes place in the frontier town of, Pawnee Kill. Two brothers, Lee Marvin and Kevin McCarthy are the town’s Sheriff and Doctor. Marvin is the no nonsense, quick with the gun type. McCarthy thinks that Marvin is just a bit too much of a shoot first, talk later type.

Marvin’s wife, Jean Howell is in bed ready any hour to have the couple’s first child. While McCarthy is checking on Howell, shots are heard from down the street. Howell of course is worried for her husband. McCarthy grabs his bag and heads to see what happened.

He finds Marvin and his Deputy, William Challee, standing over the body of a local thug. The dead man is in the employ of a local land baron, Ted de Corsia. McCarthy looks the man over and declares him ready for Boot Hill. He has words with his brother over the shooting. Could Marvin not have just arrested the man? Marvin just looks at his brother and shakes his head.

The dead man’s brother, gunman, Claude Akins, soon rides into town. He also works for de Corsia. Marvin knows that this is going to end up with further bloodshed. Akins joins de Corsia in the town saloon for a few shots of whiskey before he heads off to go after Marvin.

McCarthy takes it upon himself to try and stop the fight. He joins de Corsia and Akins for a drink in the saloon. He tells the two men they can talk out their problems with no need for any blood-letting. De Corsia and Akins agree to a meeting. McCarthy heads to Marvin to explain the agreement.

Of course we all know that de Corsia and Akins have no intention of holding up their end. De Corsia has another of his men, Christian Pasques, hide in an alley. His job is to back shoot Marvin when he comes. McCarthy, watching out of a window, realizes that he has set his brother up to be killed. McCarthy grabs up a Winchester and steps out into the street. He pots Pasques with a single shot while Marvin outdraws Akins and his boss, de Corsia.

The Doc and the Sheriff then attend to Miss Howell for the delivery of a new bouncing baby.

This one is an excellent western with top work from both sides of the camera. Marvin does a nice turn as a Lawman in a change of pace bit for him. Both Akins and de Corsia have the villain thing down pat.

Former big screen man, Don Weis, moves things along at a brisk pace. One time Oscar nominated, John L Russell sits in the cinematography chair. He was nominated for his work on Hitchcock’s Psycho. Here Russell uses plenty of low angle shots and gives the episode an almost film noir look.

The story was by veteran writer Thomas Thompson whose best known work is probably 1958’s Saddle The Wind. The screenplay was cranked out by N.B. Stone, who wrote two of my favorite big screen dusters, Man With the Gun and Ride The High Country.

Gordon Gates

Mogambo

Doing the right thing – a trite phrase in some respects, and yet it also goes straight to the heart of the personal dilemmas which form the basis of and indeed drive so many dramatic works. Ultimately, what does it mean to “do the right thing”, or to “go noble” as one of the characters in Mogambo (1953) puts it? Isn’t this just one aspect of our human condition, that perennial struggle for primacy between head and heart? Of course there’s an argument to be made that neither head nor heart can act entirely independently, and perhaps the way this movie resolves the internal conflicts which confront its characters is a reflection of that.

The notion of the fish out of water is a useful and much used dramatic device and whole movies have been hung on this particular peg. Nevertheless, it can be a tiresome conceit if the filmmaker decides to rely on it alone. John Ford was nothing if not a great artist and therefore had the wisdom to know that while this could act as a hook initially, far more substantial morsels were necessary to build a story around. So it is that Eloise Kelly (Ava Gardner) is introduced, turning up in the East African bush where the sass and sex appeal of Manhattan are of, let’s say, limited effect. It appears she has been stood up in style by a high class date, and the philosophical way she accepts this suggests that she’s no stranger to such setbacks. Stranded in an alien environment, with no way out till the next boat arrives in a week’s time, she decides to make the best of it. Making the best of it includes trying to find something useful to do and hopefully avoiding the censure of her grudging host, game trapper Vic Marswell (Clark Gable). Nature has a habit of taking its course in even the most civilized and sophisticated of settings so it ought to come as no surprise when wilder climes hurry that process along a little. To cut to the chase, Kelly and Marswell embark on a brief affair, but only one of them is looking any further at this stage. When the supply boat arrives it brings a couple of green innocents on a scientific expedition, and signals an abrupt end to Kelly’s dreams. The young couple are the Nordleys, Donald (Donald Sinden) and his wife Linda (Grace Kelly), and it won’t be long before Marswell’s eye is roving once more. However, it would be a dull and disappointing business if that’s all there were to it; either the tides of the river or maybe the more persuasive tides of fate see the old steamboat run aground and an unexpected reunion effected.

The consensus view on remakes seems to be that they are rarely a patch on the originals. Whether or not one subscribes to that approach, it’s generally advisable to assess everything on its own merits. Mogambo is a reworking of the 1932 movie Red Dust, which also featured a young Clark Gable in the lead. Even though it’s been many years since I viewed the original I feel secure in my view that Ford’s retread is by far the better film. Of course the fact that it’s Ford’s hand guiding it makes all the difference. His little quiet touches, his grace notes, are everywhere; from the resigned drop of Gardner’s head as she watches Gable walk off to greet his new clients, to the way Gable himself contemplates his smouldering cigarette as his own chances dwindle correspondingly. There is too the seamless blending of landscape and environment into the narrative, with key moments played out against the backdrop of moonlit lakes and waterfalls. Mogambo was made in the middle of a run of movies for Ford where this professed “director of westerns” avoided the genre with which his name has been so closely linked. From Rio Grande in 1950 until The Searchers in 1956 he didn’t touch westerns, but there remains something of the spirit of that genre on show here. Ford was always drawn to the intimacy of frontier living, the  minutiae of existence of those living on the edge of civilization, particularly in the Cavalry trilogy. Mogambo recreates some of that in the comfortable and companionable remoteness of Marswell’s lodge, while the beauty and hazards of the wilderness become apparent as the safari gets underway. And underpinning it all is the threat to existential connectedness, the essential symbiosis that links everything, which is posed by the arrival of the civilized Nordleys; this is quietly underscored by the frustration felt by Gable when he finds himself forced to kill animals on two separate occasions in order to save the lives of these two interlopers.

In addition to Ford’s motifs and sensibility, a more mature and experienced Gable adds another dimension to the movie. There is that gruff individualism that he so often traded on but it’s tempered somewhat by his playing a man who has lived too long in isolation, detached from emotional connections and therefore able to bond freely only on the most superficial levels. Still, those extra years add depth to his portrayal, the passage of time, or his awareness of it at least, seem to give a greater urgency to his character’s hunger, that knowledge of the need to grasp whatever opportunities come his way before it’s too late. In fact, as the story unfolds it is possible to read the internal conflict he’s experiencing, that head and heart business again, where he’s forever trying to balance some yearning for fulfillment against his personal code of ethics. In so doing, he runs the risk of losing the greater prize.

When all is said and done, the movie really belongs to Ava Gardner. Gable was top billed and, as I’ve said, he does excellent work, but the screen genuinely sparkles whenever Gardner is there. She is the main driver of events and acts as the emotional core. It’s a superb performance by an actress at the very top of her game and the height of her allure – I’ve been delving into that purple patch she struck in the mid 1950s after having recently enjoyed a rewatch of The Sun Also Rises. This was her third time playing opposite Gable, after The Hucksters and the extremely disappointing Lone Star, and it’s far and away the best of their collaborations. Her role played to her strengths, her earthy free-spirited sensuality is always to the fore, but also presented her with more subtle challenges. An example of this is the way she gets across very clearly the illusory nature of her free and easy demeanor. There’s a beautifully telling moment just after she embarks on the steamer where she’s pacing back and forth on the deck in front of a cage containing a captured leopard, the animal inside mirroring her moves. It’s evident that Gardner is trapped too, confined in life by the limited choices available to her. Despite this, she remains the most positive aspect of the movie, representing Gable’s chance for redemption and fulfillment – she is the siren whose song doesn’t lure a man to his doom but instead leads him toward salvation.

Grace Kelly had just come off High Noon but her biggest and most famous roles were still ahead of her. Her character is immature, a girl playing at being a woman, self-centered and plagued by indecision. Kelly nails the breathlessness and deception but is limited somewhat by the one dimensional nature of the role. Donald Sinden has the rather thankless part of the cuckold but does elicit sympathy due to his forthrightness and inherent dignity. Further support is provided by Philip Stainton as Gable’s plummy-voiced friend, Eric Pohlmann as a lazy and vulgar drunk, and a quiet Denis O’Dea, whose wordless confessional scene with Gardner provides another of those delightfully Fordian grace notes.

To the best of my knowledge, Mogambo has still not had a Blu-ray release. The old DVD has been around for many years now and is pretty solid, though this is the kind of movie which could look spectacular with a bit of a cleanup and a HD upgrade. It may not rank among John Ford’s more celebrated films but it’s long been a favorite of mine and one I am always keen to recommend.

A Bullet Is Waiting

I’ve spoken of the importance of titles before, and I do like to see a punchy and enticing one used. A Bullet Is Waiting (1954) has a lot going for it: it promises suspense, danger and action, it raises questions in one’s mind and attracts the attention. Is it perhaps more than a little misleading though? In a sense it’s not, as it does allude to a very real fear motivating one of the leads. On the other hand, I know that when I first heard of it I had mental images of a western or a noir-shaded thriller. Yet that’s not really what ends up presented on the screen as it’s essentially a rustic melodrama with action/thriller elements backing up a tale of romance and renewal.

Openings that fling the viewer unapologetically into the very heart of the story can be hugely effective, and that’s what occurs with A Bullet Is Waiting. The first image is of boiling, surging waters, waves driven relentlessly by their own turmoil onto hard and unyielding rocks; this, backed by a characteristically muscular and dominant Dimitri Tiomkin score, signals an affair of heightened passions. As the camera moves around the detached wheel of a plane is visible at the edge of the swirling tide, and the tracking shot back inland reveals more wreckage and debris littering the shore, seguing gradually into footprints gouged frantically in the sand. And then, at the crest of a hillock, two figures loom into view struggling against and pummeling each other in desperation. They are Ed Stone (Rory Calhoun) and Frank Munson (Stephen McNally), fugitive and pursuer respectively, quite literally locked in combat since they are shackled together at this point. Stone gains the upper hand, releases himself and sets off alone. It’s a temporary separation though and these two antagonists are soon to be reunited when they stumble  onto private property. Cally Canham (Jean Simmons) is a young woman who has been living an isolated existence with only her reclusive father (Brian Aherne), and her loyal sheepdog, for company. With her father away for a few days, neither Callie nor the two survivors of the plane wreck particularly want to be holed up together in her cabin. However, a prolonged and dramatic storm leads to flooding that cuts off all possible escape routes, and forces these disparate characters to contemplate those timeless adversaries: retribution or redemption. By the time Callie’s father returns a number of truths will have been laid bare and paths chosen.

Now this is by no means a perfect movie, there are weaknesses which I’ll address later, but it has quite a lot going for it. Director John Farrow starts out with that wonderfully cinematic opening sequence I’ve spoken about and manages to steer a fairly even course throughout, avoiding the trap of letting it get too talky, even when the plot drifts toward some philosophical musing. That philosophy – espoused on screen by Aherne and represented by his withdrawal from a modern world he sees as increasingly dominated by confusion and conflict – is actually dealt with more subtly within the framework of the plot.  Personally, I see it as a variation on the classic redemption theme by focusing on the restorative powers of nature. From the primal power of the storm to Franz Planer’s beautiful photography of the pastoral scenes, and on to the soothing effect of the sheepdog and the lamb on the frayed emotions of the characters, the influence of nature and its ability to effect renewal is never far below the surface.

As I noted though, there are weaknesses here, which ought to be mentioned. Firstly, I see the redemptive strand having  a dual focus, on the characters of both Calhoun and McNally, the need for its application to the latter emerging only gradually. By the end this is seen to have been achieved, but in one case it was never in serious doubt anyway whereas in the other something is lost, in my view at least, by the abruptness with which it occurs. Any picture that embraces the concept of redemption and/or renewal is always welcome with me but I have to say I prefer it when the road which leads there feels a little longer, or when the battle is harder fought; in A Bullet Is Waiting it, and indeed the ending itself, arrives with something approaching alacrity. I’ve talked a lot about both Calhoun and McNally on this site in the past so I’ll simply say that both men turn in typically strong work, with the former’s innate likeability and the latter’s knack for tapping into ambiguity to the fore. Brian Aherne’s presence is felt from early on through his influence on his daughter’s thinking and character but he only makes an appearance in the final third. He brings a lovely sense of quiet authority and civility to his role. I liked him in Hitchcock’s I Confess and I must try to feature some more of his work in due course.

However, the real star of A Bullet Is Waiting is Jean Simmons. She had a good deal of range, her deranged beauty in Angel Face remains a remarkable piece of screen acting and contrasts with the delicate innocence she displays here. Her slow awakening and realization of the possibilities existing outside her cloistered existence is well done; the image of her sitting in her modest bedroom, leafing through her book on ballet, the little toy ballerina turning pirouettes within its own  protective yet restrictive space, as she tries to find some common ground with Calhoun’s roughneck is just impossibly charming.

A Bullet Is Waiting was put out as a manufactured on demand DVD in the US by Sony and it’s also available in a number of European editions. Generally, the image is pleasing with Planer’s Technicolor cinematography looking particularly fine. I see that the movie is categorized as a film noir by both IMDb and Wikipedia but, even as one who tends toward an inclusive interpretation, I don’t feel that it should be applied in this case. All told, despite a somewhat rushed ending, I found this to be an enjoyable and rewarding watch. It’s one I’ll be returning to.

Blu News – Jubal

I’ve just been made aware of the fact (courtesy of John Knight) that Delmer Daves’ superior western Jubal is on its way to Blu-ray in Europe via Explosive Media / Koch in Germany in late February. This is a wonderful movie that comes highly recommended – I wrote about it here years ago.

Rogues’ Regiment

With a variety of matters vying for my time and attention these days, I’m grateful to have this opportunity to put up a piece on another of those relative rarities that Gordon Gates thrives on. So, read on…

Rogues’ Regiment (1948) is one of a number of post WW2 noir dealing with escaped Nazi war criminals. Notorious, Cornered and The Stranger would be several of the more well known.
In this one, Dick Powell is an army intelligence agent on his way to French Indo-China. He is on the trail of a high-ranking SS officer who had escaped the roundup at the end of the war. The trail leads Powell to the French Foreign Legion camp in Saigon. (The French used large numbers of ex-German soldiers in their war with the Viet-Cong).
Powell’s main problem is that there are no known photos of the man he wants. He joins the Legion himself in order to try and identify the swine. Said swine, Stephen McNally, is very careful about his identity and bumps off everyone he thinks is a danger.
Helping Powell out on his case is French Secret Service agent, Marta Toren. Toren poses as a singer in a cabaret frequented by off duty Legion members of the German type. Of course Powell and Toren are soon drawn to each other.
Also in the mix here is Vincent Price as an antique dealer who supplements his income with a little gun running for the Viet-Cong. Philip Ahn and Richard Loo play Viet Cong types who are buying said weaponry from Mister Price.
McNally, who picked Saigon and the Legion thinking it would be the least likely spot to be recognized, finds the opposite true. One of his ex-staff officers, Henry Rowland from Dachau concentration camp happens to be in the same unit. While out on patrol the men become involved in a fire-fight with the Viet-Cong and McNally applies a few rounds to the man’s back. Problem solved.
Not quite it seems. Old Vincent has tumbled to McNally’s identity and figures a bit of blackmail is in order. He knows McNally has a large cache of jewels and gold taken from his camp victims. Price wants most of it. McNally agrees as long as Price can supply him with a passport and some American dollars so he can leave the country.
Both of course plan to double cross the other when the deal is completed. Powell and Toren who have been one step behind finally clue in and quickly pick up their pursuit. The meeting between  Price and McNally needless to say has turned ever so bloody. Who wins?
The director here is Robert Florey. His work included Meet Boston Blackie, Dangerously They Live, The Beast With Five Fingers, Danger Signal, The Crooked Way, and the very under-rated The Face Behind the Mask. He was also the helmsman on hundreds of television episodes.
Screenplay was by one time Oscar nominee, Robert Buckner. He did the story or screenplays for Deported, A Prize of Gold, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Santa Fe Trail, Virginia City, Dodge City and Love Me Tender.
Powell and Toren are okay with their roles, But it is McNally here as the Nazi louse, and Price as the blackmailing snake in the grass who steal the show.
Toren, who died at age 31, managed to work the film noir  Deported, Mystery Submarine, Spy Hunt, Illegal Entry, One Way Street, Paris Assignment and Sirocco into her 4 year Hollywood career. The d of p was Maury Gertsman whose noir included Blonde Alibi, Inside Job, Singapore, One Way Street, The Glass Web and Johnny Stool Pigeon.
Well worth a watch if you can find it. Needless to say it is another UNIVERSAL-INTERNATIONAL Release.
Gordon Gates

The Sun Also Rises

Adaptation, moving from one medium to another, has been a feature of moviemaking since the earliest days, and it’s always been fraught with difficulties. Shifting a theatrical production from the stage to the screen ought to be a reasonably smooth procedure, after all drama is drama, right? Well, not always. What captivates in the theater can all too easily appear static and restrictive on the screen. Yet this is as nothing compared to the potential pitfalls of the literary adaptation, and the more famous or well-regarded the source material, the greater the chance of a negative reaction. This is understandable – authors decry the debasement of their work, the simplifications imposed, and readers express dismay at the excision of cherished passages or, worse yet, casting decisions that make a nonsense of the images they’ve been carrying around in their minds. In short, a screenwriter with a  book to adapt can be forgiven for seeing himself (or herself) on a hiding to nothing. The Sun Also Rises (1957) is based on what might well be Hemingway’s best book and it doesn’t seem to have made too many people happy. The author reportedly derided it and the screenwriter Peter Viertel disliked it. I’m not really sure what the critical consensus is but I know I always enjoyed the movie. If the book was about dreams and desires that were doomed to failure, flirtations and affairs that could only ever be imitations of what the protagonists wanted or needed, a paean to the beauty and tragedy of what can never be, then I reckon the movie, because of rather than in spite of all its flaws, might just be as good an adaptation as anyone could ever hope to make.

The Lost Generation: Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Paris, art, passion and a massive collective hangover after years of pointless slaughter seguing into a decade of apparent aimlessness, where creativity was the only antidote available to a creeping despair. Jake Barnes (Tyrone Power) is a product of all this, surrounded by artists and assorted dilettantes, wunderkinds and wasters. He is in some ways the most directionless of them all, a newspaperman who never returned home after the war and probably never will. The scars of conflict run deep in his case, rendering him impotent and thus consumed by apathy and resignation. He’s an observer of the hedonism and excess, central to it all by acquaintance yet peripheral by necessity. It’s through his eyes that the viewer sees the story unfold: first in the Parisian nightspots where he reacquaints himself with the aristocratic Lady Brett Ashley (Ava Gardner) – in his words, a drunk and a drifter – and just about tolerates the painfully self-aware Robert Cohn (Mel Ferrer); and then later in Pamplona for the fiesta, where Brett’s fiancé the dissipated Mike Campbell (Errol Flynn) meets up with them all. The whole thing amounts to a journey of discovery, where a group of desperate people are gradually force to confront the reality that, through ill-fortune or maybe just the vagaries of fate, none of them can ever hope to capture the love or personal fulfillment they yearn for. Yes, the sun will rise on another day but it’s a chill dawn that signals a world moving further away from their grasp.

The entire second act is played out during the height of the fiesta, with Mexican locations doubling for Pamplona. As the relationships become ever more tangled and the jealousies, flirtations and frustrations grow in intensity to match the progress of the fiesta the one constant in the background holding the group together is the Corrida. Hemingway was fascinated by bullfighting, writing Death in the Afternoon to address his passion for it. My own take on that aspect is that it was fueled, as were so many of his themes and concerns, by the reaction to those wartime years that left the characters of The Sun Also Rises adrift in the world. Much is made of the nobility and honesty of man confronting the overwhelming power of nature head on, of its spectacle and theatricality. It feels like an attempt to juxtapose this grand theater of death with the mindless mass slaughter he had experienced. It is as though his attitude to living and, maybe even more important in his case, dying is shaped by it; there appears to be a need to find some order and formality to it all and thus achieve some spiritual accommodation with himself and perhaps with the world in general.

As I said above, Hemingway expressed dissatisfaction with the adaptation, much to producer Darryl F Zanuck’s disgust, although it’s been suggested he may not even have seen it. Screenwriter Peter Viertel wasn’t happy with how it all turned out either, complaining about the decision to shoot in Mexico rather than Spain. Frankly, I don’t think that makes a lot of difference to the finished movie and it certainly isn’t something this viewer would count as a weakness. He also seems to have had some issues with the casting, but he’s not alone in that and it’s something I’ll come to later. Are there changes to what Hemingway had put down on paper thirty years before? Yes of course, but again my own feeling is that these aren’t of a magnitude to trouble me, and I think it’s necessary to come to terms with the fact that a shift to a different medium is always going to result in changes for a range of practical reasons. What’s important is to respect and appreciate a work on its own terms, not in relation to where it came from, not what we the audience feel it should be, not even what the original creator wanted. Ultimately, one can only evaluate the worth of a piece of art on the basis of what it is.

Henry King’s direction is as assured as ever, transitioning smoothly from  scene to scene and on into each distinct act. The CinemaScope image is well used by him in the scenes illustrating the crowded and bustling nature of the fiesta but what’s critical is his ability to maintain the required sense of intimacy when the main players interact – the bar and bistro scenes, the pivotal bedroom scenes where everyone retreats for rest but where personal revelations are made and souls are frequently bared, and of course the two key moments with Brett and Jake sharing the back seats of cars. Those are the moments where King’s lens brings the focus onto the principals, where they and their jumble of emotions dominate that big screen to the exclusion of all else.

As for the casting, I’ve seen comments before to the effect that the movie was miscast with a central group who were too old for the parts they were playing. This is undeniable and some of them look very shopworn indeed, although again I’ve never considered it a drawback. It’s been many years now since I read Hemingway’s novel but I do recall thinking that here were a collection of people whose youth had been stripped away by the horrors of combat, who had been forcibly aged beyond their years. Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn do look tired but their characters have been badly bruised by life so that’s not an issue as far as I’m concerned.

Power gets across the introversion, bitterness and only half concealed impatience of Jake, his surface affability appearing thin and brittle at times. Ava Gardner is fine too as the unfulfilled beauty, a woman who ought to have it all but who has fallen foul of a piece of rotten ill-fortune by loving the one man who cannot satisfy her needs. The substitutes she flits restlessly around are a disappointing selection: Mel Ferrer’s emotional immaturity and self-absorption is easy to despise and Errol Flynn’s decayed swashbuckler can only ever be a temporary  distraction. And it’s a superb performance by Flynn, a brutally honest portrayal of self-destruction. The sparkle is still there and the charm too but there’s a desperate sense of regret that can’t fail to touch one and I doubt the screen has ever seen a finer display of ragged dignity. Eddie Albert provides a happy-go-lucky prop for Flynn, and Juliette Greco, who just recently left us, is impressively insouciant in a small part. It seems that few people were keen on Robert Evans as the bullfighter who captivates Gardner, prompting Zanuck’s famous “the kid stays in the picture” remark. To be honest, I don’t think he adds a lot – he does have a certain gauche quality that is partially endearing but I’m not sure there’s the kind of magnetism about him that would give rise to an obsession in a character like Brett.

The Sun Also Rises has always looked strong on DVD; I had the old UK disc for many years and thought it looked fine but I was tempted to pick up the the Blu-ray over the summer when I noticed it going cheap.  Unsurprisingly, it looks even better in high definition and there are some nice supplements to add value, including a commentary track, an audio interview with Henry King,  a featurette on the making of the movie with contributions from Peter Viertel among others, and one on Hemingway adaptions in general.  All in all then, I feel that despite the reservations some have expressed regarding casting choices, locations, and changes from the original text, that the movie holds up well. If there are imperfections, and I’m not sure some of those are as damaging as they’re alleged to be, then that’s perhaps appropriate for a film about characters who are themselves less than perfect.