Christmas Holiday

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Following on from my previous post I’ve decided to have a look at another seasonal noir. Christmas Holiday (1944) is a movie that seems to slip under many people’s radar, and that may be partly down to both the title and the casting which are apt to give a false impression. At first glance, this is a film that might appear to be horribly miscast but the fact is it works very well. Having said that, the production remains a little odd, but I can’t quite put my finger on the reason. Like Lady in the Lake, the  story unfolds over Christmas but, once again, that’s really nothing more than an incidental detail – the timing could easily be changed without affecting the plot in the least.

On Christmas Eve, a newly commissioned army officer, Lt. Mason (Dean Harens), is preparing to fly to San Francisco to marry his sweetheart. However, just before he leaves, he receives a cable informing him that the deal’s off and she’s married someone else. Regardless, he decides to board his flight anyway but neither he nor the audience can be quite sure what he hopes to achieve. As it happens he never makes it to his destination, bad weather forcing his plane to make an unscheduled stop in New Orleans. He allows himself to be talked into visiting an out of town club (basically a bordello, but you couldn’t come right out and call it that under the production code) by the establishment’s PR man/pimp. It’s here that Mason meets Jackie Lamont (Deanna Durbin) and later hears her story. The character of Mason doesn’t really serve any purpose other than that of a narrative device – he’s simply there to provide an everyman perspective, the eyes and ears of the audience as a tale of deception, murder and obsession unfolds. Jackie explains that she’s been using an assumed name, her real one being Abigail Manette, since her husband’s conviction for murder. Via two separate flashbacks she relates how she met, fell in love with and married Robert Manette (Gene Kelly). Manette turned out to be a wastrel blueblood, fallen on hard times, with unsavoury characteristics that are mentioned only in the vaguest terms. This is all pretty standard fare for a noir thriller, but it’s the creepy relationship between Manette and his mother (the Spiderwoman herself, Gale Sondergaard) and the stifling home atmosphere that sets this movie apart. I’ve come across a few theories which try to explain exactly what’s “wrong” with Manette and the nature of his relationship with his mother, but I’m not entirely convinced by any of them. The script makes it clear enough that this is a man with a deeply flawed character but that’s about it. However, I haven’t read the Somerset Maugham story on which the film is based so I don’t know if that casts any further light on the subject.

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Deanna Durbin is credited with being the saviour of Universal as a result of the popularity of her lightweight musicals in the 40s but Christmas Holiday was a major departure from the usual formula for her. She does get to sing two songs, in her role as night club “hostess”, but this is a straight dramatic role. I thought she performed very well, and managed to handle the necessary transition from wide eyed innocent to world weary fallen woman quite convincingly. Gene Kelly is another performer not normally associated with dark, dubious characters but his Robert Manette is not at all bad. Seeing this jaunty, amiable figure jarringly transformed into a mother-fixated murderer has an unnerving quality that’s highly effective. Gale Sondergaard always brought an eerie, otherworldly feel to the parts she played and it fits right in here. The middle section of the film, told in flashback, takes place mainly in the confines of the Manette house, where Sondergaard seems completely at home amid the relics of a faded past. It’s this part of the movie that lends the slightly odd sense that I alluded to at the beginning. Maybe it’s the curious family dynamic, or the feeling of stepping into a world removed from the present – I honestly can’t say, but everything just feels a little off-centre in these sequences. This was Robert Siodmak’s second Hollywood noir, following on from Phantom Lady. It’s not quite up to the standard of his previous picture and lacks a little of the visual flair that he usually brought to the table. However, he does some good work in the club scenes, and the unusual architecture of the Manette house offers opportunities for some interesting shots.

As far as I know the only DVD of Christmas Holiday is the UK R2 from DDHE (EDIT – it appears there’s a Spanish release also available – see comment #1 below). It offers a pretty good transfer of the movie with no major damage or distraction on view. The only extra feature provided is a gallery of production stills. All in all, this a satisfying little noir that moves along nicely and has good performances from all the main players. For me, the casting of Kelly and Durbin worked, although I can see how it might lead to the film being ignored by some – fans of the two leads may be alienated by the atypical roles and storyline, and noir lovers may be put off by their presence. Nevertheless, I think the movie has a unique quality and is definitely worth a look.

With the Christmas juggernaut bearing down ominously, I doubt if I’ll find the time to post another piece before the holidays. So, I’d just like to take the opportunity to wish all those who have followed, commented on, or simply dropped by this blog from time to time the best of everything over the holiday period. Here’s hoping you all enjoy a happy and peaceful Christmas.

 

Lady in the Lake

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With Christmas fast approaching I thought I’d turn my attention to something which, if not exactly festive in content, is at least set around the holiday season. The hardboiled fiction of Raymond Chandler has been well represented on film down through the years, and after the commercial success of Murder My Sweet and The Big Sleep it was the turn of Lady in the Lake (1947). Unfortunately, this ended up being something of a gimmick picture as a result of the decision to shoot it entirely from a first person point of view, where the camera becomes the eyes of the protagonist. While it was an interesting experiment it does tend to become quite taxing after a time and it’s actually one of the biggest weaknesses of this film.

The first shot of the movie has Phillip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) sitting in his office addressing the audience directly and explaining that, what with the private eye business being so tough and unrewarding, he’s decided to throw it all in and write crime stories instead. After establishing this slightly odd premise he proceeds to tell us, in flashback and from the aforementioned first person perspective, the details of the story. An appointment to see a publishing executive, Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter), turns out to be something entirely different. Miss Fromsett only set up the meeting as a blind, an excuse to see Marlowe with the aim of hiring him to track down her employer’s runaway wife. Despite his initial reluctance to become involved in what he suspects is a fool’s errand, Marlowe finds himself drawn into the mystery surrounding the missing lady and the numerous shady characters that flit in and out of the tale. In the process, he falls foul of a local detective, DeGarmot (Lloyd Nolan), who’s every bit as tough and insolent as our hero. DeGarmot takes an almost instant dislike to Marlowe and even goes out of his way to have him framed on a drunk driving charge. In fact, that forms one of the best and most effective sequences in the movie – the point of view filming and haunting choral score working perfectly as Marlowe’s car is first pursued and then ruthlessly forced off the road. Then, as Marlowe slowly and painfully drags his battered body across the deserted road in an attempt to reach a phone box, the benefits of this unusual technique are most apparent. Going into the plot in more detail at this stage would be futile (and anyone familiar with Chandler’s work will know just how twisty, complex and downright confusing it can become) – suffice to say that by the end all the loose ends are pretty much tied up, and we get a happy ending that feels contrived and generally unsatisfactory.

As I said at the beginning, the filming method employed by star/director Robert Montgomery is one that loses its charm fast. It’s the kind of thing that works great in small doses, but not when it’s drawn out for the full duration of a movie. The same technique was used by Delmer Daves at the start of Dark Passage, but he wisely knew when to let it go and revert to more traditional cinematography. The simple truth is it doesn’t feel natural, and it ultimately has the effect of drawing you out of the picture – and that surely wasn’t the director’s aim. That’s one of the problems. The other is the performance of Montgomery in the lead role. Chandler envisioned Marlowe as a knight errant, a bruised and imperfect figure to guide us through a corrupt, violent noirish landscape. Most of the other interpretations of the character have given us a Marlowe who’s tough, honourable and smart enough to get away with the casual insolence he displays. Montgomery’s version, however, comes across as mean, callous and a little too dumb. Audrey Totter was always at home in noir parts and she doesn’t disappoint here – although her Adrienne Fromsett does veer from the grasping, mercenary vamp to the loyal girl friday type in a disconcertingly short space of time. For me though, the best performance comes from Lloyd Nolan, a criminally underrated actor. He never got to play the lead in A pictures but always lent solid and often memorable support. I think it would be fair to say that his presence in a movie always raised the quality and added a touch of realism.

Lady in the Lake is only available on DVD as part of Warner’s Film Noir Classics Volume 3. The transfer is reasonable but it’s dirty and there are damage marks, cue blips and the like that speak of no restoration being done. As for extras, we get the trailer and a commentary from authors Alain Silver and James Ursini. All in all, Lady in the Lake has to rate as one of the weaker outings for Phillip Marlowe. While it does have its moments it is a definite step down from both The Big Sleep and Murder My Sweet, so expectations need to be adjusted accordingly. The first time I saw this I found the filming style to be a major distraction, and frankly a pain. However, on subsequent viewings I would say it’s probably just mildly irritating now – but still annoying enough to hurt the film.

 

55 Days at Peking

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I generally steer clear of writing about huge sprawling epics on this blog, but that’s not to say I don’t like them. As it happens I’m extremely fond of such films and often feel that it’s a near impossible task to do them justice in a relatively short write up. When I was growing up the Samuel Bronston movies were always a source of marvellous entertainment to me, and represented some of the most spectacular scenes ever put on film. So, when I realised this would be my hundredth post here I thought maybe it was time to turn my attention for once to a genuinely big film. I could have chosen El Cid or The Fall of the Roman Empire but opted instead for one of the so-called lesser Bronston’s, 55 Days at Peking (1963).

The action takes place in the summer of 1900, during the latter stages of the Boxer Rebellion, when the foreign legations in Peking came under siege. Without wanting to get mired in historical detail, it seems safe to say that the Boxers found their roots in a sense of unease over the growing foreign influence in China. At the time this influence was most apparent in the area of religion, with Christianity usurping the local variety. The movie opens with a brief voiceover narration to the accompaniment of a cacophony of national anthems assaulting the eardrums. After a little more exposition in the Forbidden City, the camera cuts to the arrival of a column of dusty and weary US marines. At their head is the swaggering figure of Major Lewis (Charlton Heston), no mean feat while still on horseback. That the situation in China is spiralling out of control is immediately obvious when we see an English priest, strapped to a water wheel, being slowly tortured to death. Lewis’ attempts to buy the priest fail and the only thing he and his men accomplish is the killing of a Boxer. From here events move inexorably towards the inevitable crisis. Despite the best efforts of the British minister, Sir Arthur Robertson (David Niven), a state of war is fast approaching. In the midst of the mounting chaos Lewis finds himself drawn into a romance with a Russian aristocrat of dubious reputation (Ava Gardner). This slow build up occupies the first half of the film and it is quite heavy going. However, there are some visually impressive set pieces, such as the confrontation with a Boxer “theatrical” group during the Queen’s birthday celebrations, to keep it from becoming totally bogged down.

It’s only with the murder of the German envoy that things start to heat up on the screen. This is the point where the real action and spectacle take centre stage. Lewis’ romance starts to fade into the background as all attention is focused on the ever more desperate attempts to defend the foreign compound from wave after wave of attacks from the fanatical Boxers. It’s these marvellously choreographed scenes of pitched battles along the ramparts that really breathe life into the movie. The maniacal determination of the Chinese to breach the foreign defences forces the besieged men to come up with ever more ingenious ways to repel them. When the Boxers wheel a massive tower laden with explosives up to the perimeter, and proceed to bombard the exposed compound below, there’s a wonderful scene wherein a French priest (Harry Andrews) with a suspiciously strong Irish brogue supervises the construction of an improvised mortar to lob fireballs back at them. While this all sounds slightly deranged on paper it’s filmed and performed with enough style and conviction to remain gripping and tense throughout. Even though the seemingly endless assaults and counterattacks make for great cinema in themselves, there’s also a well filmed sequence of a night time raid on the Chinese arsenal which concludes with a magnificent and explosive payoff. The only false note is having the British minister tool up and join the raiding party on their sortie – although I’m guessing it was done to give David Niven the chance to get away from pottering fretfully around his study.

 

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One of the pleasures of watching the epic movies from this era is the knowledge that the sheer scale of the production wasn’t anything but real. Nowadays, in the age of CGI, the thought of something as financially prohibitive as building a full size replica of the besieged compound and filling it with literally thousands of swarming extras would be enough to give the average studio executive palpitations, if not an outright seizure. However, the fact that what you see on the screen in a movie like this is real and has actual physical mass adds something indefinable, a quality that’s now been lost. Somehow the very knowledge that you can now create pretty much any image imaginable on screen rubs away a little of the magic for me. To all intents and purposes 55 Days at Peking was Nicholas Ray’s last film, having walked away leaving it incomplete after one argument too many with Bronston he suffered a heart attack. It’s not his best work by any means and I don’t believe he was ideally suited to these kinds of large scale productions. Still, the striking use of colour throughout does seem to bear his hallmark. As far as the performers are concerned it’s Heston’s film all the way. Chuck was in the middle of that purple patch that would last another decade and he stamps his authority all over this picture. Though to be fair, while the film doesn’t develop his character to any meaningful degree it does offer ample opportunity for the kind of iconic posing only he could pull off convincingly. David Niven’s quiet, gentlemanly dignity is a welcome contrast (his casual flicking aside of the kneeling cushion when summoned before the Dowager Empress is a beautifully understated moment), and he even manages to make some fairly trite dialogue sound credible by adopting just the right amount of earnestness – a true professional. Ava Gardner was nearing the end of her days as a leading lady at this point and her performance is adequate but nothing more. I understand that she didn’t get along particularly well with Heston (they certainly don’t have a lot of on screen chemistry) so that may be part of the problem. Finally, a word about Dimitri Tiomkin’s score; his style is not to everyone’s taste and he’s sometimes criticised for being excessively bombastic, but I like it a lot and think it’s perfectly suited to this kind of larger than life movie.

55 Days at Peking is available on DVD from a number of sources worldwide, and the edition I have is one I picked up in Greece years ago. It was released on the PCV label and it’s got a fine anamorphic scope transfer that doesn’t suffer from any major damage or colour fading. The image is progressive and doesn’t look to me like it’s been manipulated excessively. I’ve had a look at the screencaps on the Beaver’s site and I’m fairly confident that my copy looks a good deal stronger than the Japanese one featured there. It’s R2 PAL, of course, and runs at 156 minutes including the overture, intermission, entre’acte and exit music. It’s a shame that reports of poor sales seem to have halted further releases in R1 of the Miriam Collection since the Bronston titles already out in that line are probably the best on the market. This is a movie that’s been neglected in more ways than one over the years and critics have rarely had many positive things to say about it. It is probably overlong and could use a little trimming in the first half, the use of Caucasian actors in the major Chinese roles is possibly a source of annoyance for some, but I still enjoy the movie immensely. Perhaps the fact that it’s a throwback to that vanished era of large scale, no holds barred filmmaking adds to its charm for me. I recommend it if you can get your hands on a decent copy.

Charley Varrick

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The term “underrated movie” is one that tends to get thrown around with abandon these days and its overuse is in danger of rendering it meaningless. However, there are times when that label is most certainly appropriate, and Charley Varrick (1973) is a prime example. I’ve no real explanation for this, but I do have a hunch that it frequently comes down to other work by the people involved dominating the thoughts of film fans. For most people (if they’ve heard the names at all) Don Siegel is identified with Dirty Harry, and Walter Matthau with comedic roles alongside Jack Lemmon. Without wishing to disparage any of those films, it is a shame that such thinking has lead to what is arguably the best work by both of these men being virtually forgotten.

Charley Varrick (Matthau) calls himself The Last of the Independents, something that’s true on two levels – his crop dusting operation is in terminal decline due to the rise of the conglomerates, and the small-time criminal activities he’s turned to are overshadowed by organised crime. When the botched robbery of a tiny New Mexico bank yields a huge payday Charley realises that something is very badly wrong. His sole surviving partner, Harman (Andy Robinson), can’t believe their luck but Charley’s been around long enough to recognise the stench of mob money and the consequences of stealing it. When an apparently unstoppable hitman (Joe Don Baker) goes to work the chase is on, and Charley has to figure out a way of staying one step ahead of both the law and the mob. What follows is a violent and dangerous game of criminal chess played out amid the hick towns and trailer parks of the southwest. Charley Varrick starts out as a man who shouldn’t be expected to engage our sympathy (after all he is the leader of a gang of murderous thieves), but by the end of the film we’re rooting for him – when the odds are stacked so heavily against a man it’s hard not to find yourself taking his part. Added to this Charley is, almost perversely, the only figure who displays any real honour or integrity – this petty hood is the only honest one in a world of crooked bankers, sadistic killers, lowlife chiselers and sharp suited mafia front men.

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Although Walter Matthau’s sourpuss features seem destined to remain forever associated with his comic roles he made a trio of tough crime pictures in the early seventies; The Laughing Policeman, The Taking of Pelham 123 and Charley Varrick. The fact that he was able to switch genres so effortlessly and credibly says much for the talent and versatility of the man. While he plays Charley Varrick as a cool and efficient veteran crook he still manages to fit in a few examples of his trademark deadpan humour. I’d have no hesitation in saying that this is the best I’ve seen of Matthau, and his career was by no means characterised by poor performances. The other standout member of the cast was Joe Don Baker as the smiling, heartless contract killer. Having said that, there is no particularly weak playing and John Vernon, Andy Robinson and Sheree North all give good solid support. Don Siegel rarely gets mentioned when top directors are discussed, but the fact remains that he regularly churned out tight intelligent films that eschewed pretension and made everything look deceptively simple. This and The Shootist are his two best films in my opinion, and I’d hate to have to choose between them. And last but not least, there’s a fine score from Lalo Schifrin that’s just about the ideal accompaniment for both the period and the mood.

As for the DVD, Charley Varrick is available in R2 in the UK from Fremantle in a nice anamorphic widescreen transfer (I think the R1 is an open-matte affair). It may not be pristine and it’s an almost barebones disc but there’s no major problems and the price is definitely right. All in all, Charley Varrick is a high class crime movie that really ought to be better known.

The Man Between

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Having successfully treated audiences to the story of an innocent abroad in a war ravaged European city in The Third Man, director Carol Reed attempted to recapture some of that magic four years later with The Man Between (1953). That he didn’t quite manage to do so shouldn’t be seen as too harsh a criticism; while this film never achieves the consistency of style or suspense of his earlier work it still rates as a very fine movie.

Susanne Mallison (Claire Bloom) arrives in a devastated post-war Berlin to visit her brother Martin, a British army officer, and his new German wife Bettina (Hildegard Knef). Right from the beginning there is a sense that something is not quite right in this relationship, although the overworked husband appears blissfully unaware of any problems. With Bettina receiving mysterious telephone calls and messages Susanne’s suspicions are aroused. When the two women take in a visit to the Eastern zone (this was in the days before the wall went up), and just happen to run into an old acquaintance of Bettina’s, Susanne becomes convinced that her sister in law is having an affair. Ivo Kern (James Mason) is a charming yet ambiguous figure who has emerged from Bettina’s past and threatens to sabotage her future. However, despite early indications, the story is not some hackneyed love triangle with Ivo as the man between Bettina and her husband. That somewhat slow and predictable build-up is swept aside when the altogether more stylish second half of the film reveals itself to be a tense Cold War thriller that had merely been lurking in the shadows. As we learn who and what Ivo really is the movie develops into a cat and mouse chase through a bleak and menacing East Berlin.

Carol Reed had just made two bona fide masterpieces in Odd Man Out and The Third Man prior to The Man Between. The fact that this film featured the star of the former and a theme and setting similar to the latter often lead to its being judged more harshly than might normally be the case. Placed next to those two great works it does pale, but then most movies would. However, taken on its own terms, this film has much to recommend it. All the way through there is the distinctive visual style of Reed – tilted angles and deep shadow. The second half in particular takes the viewer on a tour of the city at night, a dark, dangerous place where friends are few and those deceptively close border crossings are always just out of reach. What saves the film from growing moribund in the first half, and adds to the tension and poignancy of the second half, are the performances of the two leads. Mason was a pastmaster at playing flawed and tarnished heroes, and his Ivo Kern is a fine creation. He is a man caught between past and present, East and West, self interest and honour. Claire Bloom, in a very early role, takes a character who starts out as a portrait of middle class primness and gradually develops her into a young woman on the cusp of maturity, learning bit by bit that her preconceptions about both herself and the world around her might not be as clear cut as they first appear. I’d also like to give a mention to the frankly excellent score by John Addison; it has a melancholy romanticism that lingers long in the memory.

If you’re looking to find The Man Between on DVD there are two choices available at the moment. I have the German edition from Kinowelt and it provides a very good transfer with optional subs that are removable via the main menu. The print is in fine condition with good contrast and blacks and no noticeable damage. The film is presented in Academy ratio and, although I’m certainly no expert on such matters, that looks correct to me. I mention this because the other option is the edition available in the UK from Optimum in their James Mason Icons set. While I don’t own that disc I do know that it presents the film in widescreen format, and I’m not convinced that that’s how it should be seen. It is notoriously difficult to pin down the correct aspect ratio for British films of this vintage as the UK wasn’t quite up to speed with the US in adopting widescreen. Apart from that, the framing on the German DVD just looks right, with no apparent cropping at the sides and no extraneous space at the top or bottom. Looked at in context, The Man Between is lesser Reed but, if you can put aside comparisons with his more celebrated works, it still makes for entertaining and rewarding viewing.

 

Fixed Bayonets!

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As I (not so) patiently wait for the new Sam Fuller box to roll up to my door I thought I might as well have a look at one of his other films to pass the time. It turned out to be a toss up between Forty Guns and Fixed Bayonets! (1951). Since I’ve been watching a lot of westerns lately and haven’t posted anything about war movies for a while it was the latter that won out in the end. This was Fuller’s first film for Fox, and it makes a nice companion piece to his earlier study of men in war The Steel Helmet – they’re both lean, unglamorous portrayals of the trials of enlisted men in Korea.

The plot is a very simple one – to cover the retreat of the division, a small detachment is left behind in the frozen wastes of Korea to carry out a rearguard action. This luckless group find themselves holed up in a narrow mountain pass, hoping to trick the Chinese into believing that they’re actually an advance party for the division. The focus is on Denno (Richard Basehart), a reluctant corporal who dropped out of officer training school because he didn’t want the responsibility. Not only that but he also has to deal with the fact that he finds himself unable to pull the trigger whenever he gets an enemy target in his sights. None of this would necessarily present a huge problem if it weren’t for the fact that Denno now has only three men between him and his greatest horror, the burden of command. In contrast to the sensitive, introspective corporal is Sergeant Rock (Gene Evans), the tough old pro who has stayed in the army but can’t quite put his finger on the reasons why. While the rest of the platoon have their doubts about Denno, Rock keeps faith with him as he feels he knows his man. As the Chinese press ever closer, and the casualties steadily mount, it’s obvious that sooner or later Denno will find himself the top man – the Ichiban Boy – and the only real question is how he’s going to handle it.

Gene Evans basically reprises his role from The Steel Helmet, but it’s almost the kind of part he was born to play. He really brings the battle-hardened Rock to life, full of fatalistic humour as he bullies and cajoles the grunts into doing what has to be done. If Rock is the beating heart of the platoon then Denno is the conscience, and Richard Basehart was well cast in that part. His quiet, dignified tone stands out among the casual slang of the other dog-faces around him. He was capable of that intense, repressed look that is ideal for a man being eaten up by inner turmoil. Some of the best scenes in the movie take place in the quiet moments in the cave when Rock and Denno chew the cud over the nature of soldiering and responsibility. Fuller directs these claustrophobic scenes with apparent ease, using a full 360 pan at one point to show the whole platoon (or what remains of it) looking on as the reluctant medic performs surgery on himself. He punctuates such scenes with bursts of jarring, unexpected violence and moments of incredible tension, such as Denno’s walk through a minefield at night to rescue a mortally wounded NCO. His sense of pacing and economy are spot on, with not a shot wasted as we rattle along to the climax.

The R1 DVD from Fox is a frugal affair with little in the way of extras but it does boast a generally strong transfer. Fixed Bayonets! is a fine early example of Fuller’s honest, no nonsense approach to film-making and has his unsentimental machismo stamped proudly all over it. I enjoyed it a hell of a lot – now if only that Sony boxset would turn up!

 

Seven Men from Now

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I was just thinking the other day that it will soon be close to a year since I got my hands on Sony’s superlative set of Boetticher/Scott westerns. Those movies were at the very top of my most wanted list for so long, and it still gives me great pleasure to know that I can now pick them off my shelves and enjoy them any time I please. With that thought in mind, I decided to give Seven Men from Now (1956) another view. This film is of course not officially part of the Ranown group of titles, but it was the first to bring together Scott, Boetticher and Kennedy – so it is the movie that kicked off that cycle and it’s also the template for what was to follow.

As soon as the title credits have rolled the film immediately kicks into gear. Out of the darkness, and a violent storm, comes the lone figure of a man making his way towards the shelter of a nearby cave. It’s already occupied by two vaguely uneasy men, but they still offer the stranger a cup of coffee and a seat by the fire. A stilted conversation follows, but when a killing in the town of Silver Springs is brought up something snaps. The camera cuts away, gunfire is heard, and only one man will ride off. That man is Ben Stride (Randolph Scott), former sheriff of the aforementioned town and now a driven manhunter. Seven men robbed the Wells Fargo office in Silver Springs, killing Stride’s wife in the process. Now only five are left alive, and Stride spends the remainder of the movie blazing a trail across Arizona in his quest for vengeance. Along the way he runs into a couple of easterners, headed for California and a new life. The couple are Annie Greer (Gail Russell) and her less than capable husband John (Walter Reed). Stride’s inherent decency means that he can’t abandon these two greenhorns to their fate in hostile country, so he rides with them part of the way. By the time they reach a deserted relay station, the last important figure is introduced. This is Masters (Lee Marvin), an man of dubious character who Stride has had occasion to lock up in the past. However, Masters appears to bear him no ill will and makes it clear that his only interest is in finding the gold that was stolen from Silver Springs. When this oddly matched group sets out again the tensions begin to rise, and it seems only a matter of time before Stride and Masters will square off.

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As I said in my introduction, Seven Men from Now was the seed from which the Ranown westerns were to grow. Just about every character, theme and situation would be revisited and honed to near perfection over the course of the next four years. Scott is the classical loner, haunted by the demons of his past and desperate to make up for the character flaws and inadequacies that brought him to his present state. He can be hard and ruthless when the circumstances demand but still retains a sensitivity to those who are dependent on him. Gail Russell was given a shot at a comeback with the reasonably meaty role of a woman who married a weak and ineffectual man but will stick by him for all that. Miss Russell’s story was a tragic one; were it not for a combination of insecurity and alcoholism she might have achieved much more than her appallingly short life permitted. Nevertheless, she plays her part perfectly here and it’s almost as if she was able to channel all the dissatisfaction with her own life into Annie Greer. It has to be said that Walter Reed is pretty colourless as the husband, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing when you’re looking to play a weak willed and essentially passive character. Lee Marvin, on the other hand, is all swaggering bravado and insidious charm. His nonchalant, sneering dandy with the long, green scarf and twin pistols is the perfect counterbalance to Scott’s underplaying. I’d say he actually steals the picture as he dominates every scene he’s in – the real standouts being his taunting provocation of Scott, Reed and Russell in the confines of a storm battered wagon, and the final one on one duel amid the barren rocks of Lone Pine.

Boetticher and Kennedy revisited this premise again and again in their movies: the small isolated group comprised of the obsessive avenger, the strong yet vulnerable woman, the expendable sidekicks and the villain that you half admire. Anyone familiar with Kennedy’s scripts will easily recognise the recurring dialogue, but the beauty of it is that it’s such iconic stuff it never actually sounds cliched. Boetticher’s direction here is first rate, making the most of the familiar Lone Pine locations – the bulk of the action in Seven Men from Now takes place outdoors and that’s a real blessing in any of his movies. There’s the usual mix of telling close-ups interspersed with glorious wide shots. The climax among the labyrinthine boulders creates a great sense of claustrophobia and allows for some marvellously framed images.

Paramount did western fans a real favour when they put Seven Men from Now out on a DVD a few years back. The R1 disc (I’m going to assume the R2 replicates it) is an excellent anamorphic transfer that I couldn’t fault. In addition to the main feature, there’s a boatload of great extras with the commentary track by Jim Kitses and the documentary Budd Boetticher – An American Original being especially worthy of mention. Seven Men from Now stands as a first class western on its own, but what makes it even more special is the knowledge that Boetticher, Scott and Kennedy would go on to produce still classier material in a very short space of time. If you haven’t seen this film then you really owe it to yourself to put that situation right as soon as possible – I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Glass Key

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The Glass Key (1942), from Dashiell Hammett’s novel, is a remake of of a 1935 picture. I have no idea how it compares since I’ve never seen the original, but this later movie does feature the trump card pairing of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in their second outing together. It came out hot on the heels of This Gun for Hire and cemented the screen partnership of the two leads.

Typical of its hardboiled, pulp source, the plot is a twisty and complex one with myriad interlocking strands. At its core, however, is the relationship between political kingmaker Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) and his assistant/minder Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd). Madvig is one of those old-school, two-fisted ward bosses who’s made good and risen to a position of considerable influence. Beaumont hails from a similar background, although he displays a good deal more polish than his employer – or at least he’s learned the art of concealing his rough edges a little better. Madvig’s in the process of running a campaign to secure the election of a prominent blue blood, and simultaneously working his socks off to woo the the same gentleman’s daughter, Janet (Veronica Lake) – she’s got the hots for Beaumont though. However, this upper crust family has enough skeletons rattling around in the closet to fill up a good sized cemetery, not the least of which is a wastrel son who’s heavily in debt to the local mob. Now, this young man also happens to have a thing going on with Madvig’s kid sister (getting confused yet?), so when he turns up dead it’s no surprise who the finger of suspicion points to. To make matters worse, Madvig seems either unwilling or unable to do anything to clear himself. So, it falls to Beaumont to try and straighten out the tangled mess and get at the truth. Along the way the film casts a jaundiced eye over the inherently rotten nature of politics and those involved in it. It’s this examination of the filthy underbelly of outwardly respectable institutions and their corrupting influence, rather than the love triangle or the murder mystery, that mark The Glass Key out as film noir. The film also has a brutal edge that lends it a degree of authenticity – the savage and sustained beating handed out to Beaumont by the mob is genuinely uncomfortable to watch, and its aftermath is a tribute to the skill and creativity of the make-up department.

Maybe it’s just my impression, but Alan Ladd never seems to get the respect he deserves as an actor. There was nothing showy about him and it’s possible that his quiet restraint has been mistaken for a lack of ability. For me, it works very well though – especially in a role like that of Ed Beaumont. Ladd displays just the required degree of toughness when necessary and eases comfortably into a more relaxed mode in his scenes with Veronica Lake. It has to be said that Miss Lake was far from being the most expressive of actresses but this actually works to her advantage here. Her less than mobile features add the quality of ambiguity to her character that the script demands, and accentuate the arrogant condescension she feels for Madvig. Brian Donlevy was an excellent choice as the strutting, cocksure politico. He had the kind of natural dynamism that breathes life into the character of Madvig, and he was also capable of tapping into a sense of pathos that allows you to feel real sympathy for him in those moments when we see clearly the tolerant contempt with which he’s viewed by the supposedly respectable Henry family. Nevertheless, as was the case with the later The Blue Dahlia, William Bendix nearly steals the whole picture from beneath the noses of the principals. There’s a disconcerting whiff of the comedic about this menacing mob heavy; a bit like a psychotic teddy bear come to life. He comes across as one seriously sick puppy who positively relishes the hammering he metes out to Ladd and longs for an opportunity to do so again. Stuart Heisler’s direction is competent without ever being especially memorable but he has a good sense of pace and packs a lot of complicated plot into a fairly brisk running time. As with most hardboiled adaptations there’s plenty of snappy dialogue on show, and listening to some of the throwaway lines is half the pleasure. In the midst of pounding Alan Ladd into a nearly unrecognisable pulp, William Bendix and Eddie Marr break off to chow down on some steaks and the latter comments that: “My first wife was a second cook in a third rate joint on Fourth Street.”

The Glass Key came out on R2 DVD in the UK a few years ago from Universal. It’s a fairly typical Universal UK transfer in that it was just slapped on disc as is. There aren’t any major issues with the print save for the fact that it’s pretty grubby. Anyway, it is available and it’s cheap. For some unfathomable reason this film has never been given a release in R1 despite frequent requests from fans and, considering recent developments concerning Universal’s “vault” programme, it’s anybody’s guess what will happen now. The film itself remains a very enjoyable slice of early noir and should probably be regarded as an essential title. It doesn’t match up to that other famous Hammett adaptation, The Maltese Falcon, in terms of style or overall sourness but there’s still much to admire. As an aside, I couldn’t help noticing that the central relationship between Madvig and Beaumont (and their apparent falling out over a woman) bore more than a passing resemblance to that of Tom and Leo in the Coen Brothers’ great gangster/noir Miller’s Crossing.

Inferno

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A little suffering is good for the soul – that would appear to be the message of Inferno (1953). It’s a classic tale of man against nature with a liberal sprinkling of deceit, infidelity and murder thrown in for good measure. The movie is generally regarded as a film noir and I suppose that’s fair enough given its themes, although the visuals (technicolor and wide open spaces) suggest it should be the antithesis of that style.

The opening pitches you right into the middle of the plot with no time wasted on backstory or build-up. Within a few minutes the viewer knows exactly what’s going on and what led up to it. A man has broken his leg out in the desert and his wife and her lover have decided to abandon him and let nature take its course. The unfortunate victim is one Don Carson (Robert Ryan), a hard drinking businessman with plenty of money but few friends. Carson has gone out to a remote part of the desert in the company of his faithless wife Gerry (Rhonda Fleming) and a mining engineer, Duncan (William Lundigan), to scout for manganese deposits. When an accident presents Gerry and Duncan with a heaven sent opportunity to rid themselves of Carson they grab it with both hands. All they need do is manipulate the evidence and cook up a story about Carson going off on an alcoholic bender to be home free. However, the scheming  lovers underestimate their victim and his resourcefulness – Carson may have led a pampered life of privilege but he has a powerful will to live and an instinct for survival. The film twists and turns its way to the conclusion and, as it does so, the character of Carson moves smoothly from being initially an unsympathetic boor to a man the viewer can both admire and root for. The best scenes in the movie have Carson battling against the merciless desert, with nothing but his thoughts to keep him company. There’s also some clever cutting to point up the contrasting fortunes of the protagonists: while the hero grows desperate for water there’s a sudden jump to a shot of Duncan diving into a crystal clear pool; and when Carson finds himself on the verge of starvation the next scene has his wife delicately carving a roast back at the LA mansion.

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Inferno saw Robert Ryan near the top of his game in a career that had more than its fair share of highs. He spends the bulk of his screen time alone in the vast wilderness, crawling and dragging his broken body over the unforgiving terrain. There’s no one else present to play off and that fact makes it even more remarkable that he managed to develop his character into a fully rounded human being that we actually care about. He starts out as a spoiled, sullen drunk petulantly taking pot shots at a discarded whisky bottle, but by the end of the picture his trials and torments have transformed him into a man of character and humility. Rhonda Fleming was well cast as the devious Gerry, brimming with a kind of loathsome sexiness. She is the typically heartless femme fatale with a perverse sense of morality, who doesn’t bat an eye at the thought of leaving a man to a slow, aching death but baulks at the idea of shooting him. William Lundigan was a fairly bland actor but a capable enough one for all that. Although Inferno would be one of his last major roles before moving into television he does a reasonable job with a basically one dimensional character. Director Roy Ward Baker made a handful of movies in Hollywood in the early 50s before moving back to Britain. Inferno was the last of them and it wasn’t a bad one to finish on. He makes wonderful use of the desert locations to emphasise the harshness of the environment and the lonely struggle of the hero. Of course it doesn’t hurt to have a cameraman of the calibre of Lucien Ballard on hand, and the two of them managed to turn out a film that’s tense, uplifting and visually arresting. This movie was originally shot in 3D, a process that sometimes led to gimmicky effects shots, but it never really intrudes too much here – though a lantern is fired directly at the camera during the climax.

A while back, when Fox was still in the business of issuing DVDs, it was rumoured that Inferno was due a release in the US, possibly as part of the noir line but nothing ever came of it. However, it has been given a release in R2 in Spain by a company called Impulso. They have licensed a number of titles and market them as Fox Cinema Classics. The transfer for Inferno is a generally pleasing one. Viewed on a 37 inch screen I thought it looked fine for the most part – the image is mostly smooth and sharp but there are instances of heavy grain (especially during the titles). The colour is quite strong but it can take on a slight pinkish hue at times. The disc itself is pretty basic with the only extra of note being a gallery. All told, I was satisfied with this one and it is the only way to get your hands on this title at the time of writing. Inferno is a tight, pacy little movie that clocks in at 80 minutes and rarely stops to take a breath. I’d rate it highly as a noirish thriller in an unusual setting, boasting classy performances and excellent visuals.

Escape from Fort Bravo

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Often a film will stick in one’s mind because of a certain scene or sequence. That’s certainly the case with Escape from Fort Bravo (1953), a movie I first saw many moons ago but whose climax lingered on as a fond memory down through the years. Under such circumstances revisits are a delicate matter, best approached with caution as disappointment is always ready to pounce. When I eventually got the chance to see this western again last year I was pleased to find that my memory hadn’t been playing tricks on me – I enjoyed it immensely. Digging it out and giving it a spin the other day, for the purposes of this piece, allowed me to recognise some of its weaknesses more clearly but still didn’t dilute any of the punch of the ending.

The action takes place in Arizona during the Civil War, where a group of Confederate prisoners are cooped up in the dusty Fort Bravo. Among the jailers is Captain Roper (William Holden), a hard-bitten man who thinks nothing of marching a recaptured prisoner back through the blazing desert heat as an example to the others. While such actions naturally stir resentment among the southerners, his own commander and peers don’t shirk away from expressing their disapproval either. The tensions within the stockade are only one aspect of the problem though, as the fort is right smack in the middle of hostile Mescalero territory. The threat posed by the Apache is an ever present one and is highlighted early on when a detachment is sent out to locate a delayed supply convoy, finding only burned wagons and dead drivers. On the return leg the troop encounter a stage and escort it back to the safety of the fort. This stage contains one Carla Forester (Eleanor Parker), who’s using the cover of a wedding invitation to facilitate the escape of the Confederate OC, Captain Marsh (John Forsythe). This leads into an unconvincing and undeveloped love triangle which, in combination with the less than riveting escape plan, could well have sunk the picture. Fortunately, the addition of some ripe dialogue and good support playing (William Demarest in particular) just about keep things afloat. The resulting escape and pursuit get things back on course again, and by the time Roper, Marsh et al find themselves surrounded by some of the most cunning Apaches ever seen on film the tension has been wound tight. Those scenes in the latter half of the film are worth the price of admission alone. Watching the small, isolated group, huddled in a desert crater, move from defiance to fearful realization and back again is quite powerful stuff. Adversity is said to bring out the best and the worst in men, and the sight of Roper striding out at dawn, a revolver in both fists, to meet fate head on is a marvellous image.

William Holden takes a lonely walk.

William Holden was arguably in his prime when Escape from Fort Bravo was made (the same year as Stalag 17) and he gave a very strong performance as the practical and ruthless Roper. He was ideally suited to playing tough cynics with a deep set yet true sense of personal honour. Watching Holden’s honest, warts-and-all portrayal of Roper really shows up the inadequacies of his co-star. John Forsythe is a likable enough actor but there’s a lightweight quality about him (it worked well enough in a movie like The Trouble with Harry, and Hitchcock obviously thought enough of him to cast him again in Topaz and in his TV show) that’s not quite right for the part of a tough veteran. I’ve always enjoyed watching Eleanor Parker, she had a sassiness that suggested she could hold her own in any company and give as good as she got. However, she’s poorly served by her role here and the aforementioned “love triangle that really isn’t” is largely responsible for that. It seems odd to refer to a director’s twentieth picture as his breakthrough, but in this case I believe that’s actually the case. John Sturges would go on to make a string of ever more successful films after this and showed that he was highly capable when it came to action. His best work is in the early and latter stages, when he made effective use of the Death Valley locations and avoided the studio mock-ups. It’s also notable that he wisely chose to shoot the key scenes without any musical accompaniment and they’re all the better for it.

When Warner released Escape from Fort Bravo in their Western Classics box there was a good deal of griping about the quality of the transfer. It seemed to be the general consensus that much of the blame could be laid at the door of the poor condition of the Ansco Color elements. In truth, the transfer isn’t that bad and the colour is actually fairly strong. The real problem is that the print used is very dirty and obviously had little or no work done on it. It’s available in the R1 box (probably the best value), and individually in both R1 and continental R2. Escape from Fort Bravo belongs to that small category of westerns, along with Two Flags West and Major Dundee, that has Yankees and Rebs fighting side by side against the Indians. I think it’s a fine little western whose strong opening and blinding finish certainly shore up a slightly sagging middle section. Recommended.