The Omega Man

£7

Up to now I haven’t touched on science fiction on this blog. The reason for that isn’t that I have any beef with the genre, rather that it tends to get plenty of attention elsewhere. The truth is I’m quite fond of sci-fi, at least the movies from the 50s through to the 70s, and watch a reasonable amount of it. One of my all time favourites in the genre has to be The Omega Man (1971), a film that’s not without its faults but whose strengths raise it up high. To the best of my knowledge, the story by Richard Matheson has been filmed three times now with The Omega Man being the second effort. It’s a movie very much of its time, but Charlton Heston’s central performance and a fantastic score by Ron Grainer power it on and help to divert attention from the weaknesses.

The story is pretty straightforward: a Sino-Russian conflict spreads westward and eventually engulfs the whole world, resulting in germ warfare that essentially wipes out humanity. The film opens with Robert Neville (Charlton Heston), a former army scientist, driving through a barren urban landscape. This scene, which never fails to give me goose bumps, has Neville cruising down deserted streets to the accompaniment of Percy Faith’s A Summer Place blasting out from the car stereo. For an instant, everything seems almost idyllic – but the illusion of an early morning spin in a still sleeping city is shattered violently as Neville stamps on the brakes and produces a machine pistol to rake the windows of a building where he’s just spotted a dark figure flitting silently by. From this point on it becomes clear what the real situation is; Neville is the last healthy human in a world of corpses and photo-sensitive mutants. The first three quarters of an hour are spent establishing the near hopeless situation Neville finds himself facing. He commands the city by day, hunting mutants and searching for their hive, but the nights belong to the black robed Family. It’s clear that the strain of his solitary existence and nights spent holed up in his fortress-like brownstone have begun to take their toll on Neville’s psychology. He spends his time conversing with himself and playing chess with a bust of Caesar, and he’s beginning to crack up. Were any person forced to live in such isolation and fend off regular night time assaults and taunts from the sinister Family, it’s not unreasonable that they’d start to imagine they could hear phones ringing and begin to question their own sanity. Neville has spent two long years ploughing this lonely furrow, until he catches a glimpse of what he thinks might be another normal human being. It’s only when a slip on his part leads to his being captured by the Family that he finds out he’s not as alone as he thought. That whole first half of the movie carefully builds up a picture of Neville’s world and the horror of living within it. The second part takes us in a new direction as we see him regain hope and perspective. The question is whether that new hope can be sustained, and the answer is left open when the movie reaches its conclusion with one of the most memorable (and touching) final shots and fade outs in cinema.

 

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I started off by pointing out that The Omega Man is not without its faults, and I’ll try and address those first. The thing that will strike any modern audience is that this is a 70s movie, and proudly so. The imagery and many of the themes are rooted firmly in that decade. The problem is that this lends it an air of kitsch that may be off-putting to some. The presence of Rosalind Cash and Lincoln Kilpatrick results in a curious mix of jive talking blaxploitation and more serious questions about race relations, and they don’t really sit comfortably together in retrospect. However, that stuff is more a matter of personal taste and could be seen as part of the movie’s charm. A bigger issue is the Family (this is probably the main weakness of all three versions of the story) who never come across as threatening as they should. They do attain a cult-style creepiness, and their malice is never in question, but there’s also a slightly comical air about them – not helped by a hammy performance by Anthony Zerbe as their leader Matthias – that dilutes the danger somewhat. On the other hand, Heston’s take on Neville really anchors the picture. He does very well in the opening half when he basically has no one to play off and has to earn the viewers’ sympathy and support single handed. I thought he brought the right balance of tough resilience and increasing despondency to the role. The other major plus is a score by Ron Grainer that evokes the mood of both the story and the characters beautifully. I think it would be fair to say that Grainer’s music plays a significant part in ensuring the movie remains eminently watchable – this is probably among the best pieces of film composing the decade offered.

The Omega Man is one of the gradually increasing number of classic films that’s made it onto Blu-Ray. Having said that, I’ve yet to buy into the format myself (partly because of a lack of attractive titles but mainly because I’m satisfied enough with the quality of the DVDs I own – but that’s a discussion for another time) so I’ll confine myself to saying that I’ve no doubt the BD adds to the overall visual presentation. The old Warner DVD was one that never gave me any cause for complaint, with a strong and detailed anamorphic scope image. For me, the film is an old favourite whose failings can be easily ignored when there’s the pleasure of seeing Heston near his best and hearing Ron Grainer’s haunting melodies.

Shanghai Express

£8

You’re in China now, sir, where time and life have no value.

Style over substance, that’s a term that’s often levelled at some movies as a form of criticism; however, it doesn’t always have to be taken as such. On occasion, the humdrum, the trite and the unoriginal can be elevated by the presence of stylised techniques and images. Shanghai Express (1932) is a film where this is certainly the case – the story is pure, overblown melodrama but, in the hands of Josef von Sternberg, it manages to transcend the limitations of its plot and approach art.

Events take place during the Chinese Civil War, with a rag-tag assortment of characters boarding the titular train. The main topic of conversation is the presence of a notorious prostitute called Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich) who has been involved in a series of scandals up and down the Chinese coast. The reactions tend to vary from the outraged disapproval of a missionary to the more pragmatic acceptance by an American gambler and a disgraced French soldier. All the passengers know Shanghai Lily only by reputation, all but one that is. Captain Harvey (Clive Brook) is a British army surgeon travelling to Shanghai to perform an operation on a high ranking government official. Harvey and the woman were once lovers until an indiscretion on her part drove a wedge between them. From then on she embarked on a series of affairs and liaisons that earned her that colourful name. The rub is that these two people are still in love, but their pride and past histories prevent them from bridging the gap of mistrust that has grown up between them. The simmering sexual tensions are brought to a head when one of the passengers, a Eurasian by the name of Chang (Warner Oland), reveals himself as a Maoist rebel and hijacks the train. Chang’s aim is simply to hold the passengers, Harvey in particular, hostage until the government agrees to release one of his close lieutenants. In the end, it comes down to whether or not Shanghai Lily will sacrifice her new found honour to save the man she loves – and whether or not he will understand her motives. As I said, this is melodrama of the ripest and tawdriest variety. The whole thing works, and works very well, due to von Sternberg’s skill in evoking an atmosphere of decadence and exoticism that is dreamlike in its allure. The train itself is one of those inter-war extravagances that contrasts with the ramshackle station where the hostages are held. There are a number of notable sequences, but the one that made the greatest impression on me was the night-time assault on the train by Chang’s rebels. Bathed in expressionistic shadows and hissing steam, the rebels swarm over the stalled locomotive and dispose of the government troops. Those not killed immediately are rounded up and, as a heavy machine gun filmed in silhouette chatters into life, butchered on the platform. The camera angles and movements in this scene, and throughout the whole movie, are much more inventive and fluid than one normally expects in early sound pictures.

 

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While von Sternberg clearly revelled in the theatrical oriental atmosphere, more than anything the film was an ode to Dietrich. It’s the way that Von Sternberg and cinematographer Lee Garmes lit and shot Dietrich that gives the film its power. He never misses an opportunity to zoom in on her, and Garmes’ setups are designed to accentuate that famous bone structure as the camera lingers. Her performance is nothing special in itself, but she oozes that languid, provocative sexuality that was her trademark. The dialogue that she (and all the cast members for that matter) is handed is delivered in a slow, deliberate, almost stilted fashion that actually works within the dreamy and unreal world that von Sternberg weaves. The role of Captain Harvey went to Clive Brook, and that damn near derails (sic) the whole show. He gives one of the most wooden and po-faced performances it’s been my misfortune to witness – although it could be argued, generously, that this actually serves to emphasise the priggishness of his character. Still and all, it’s hard to see how Dietrich’s character could possibly have carried a torch for this stuffed shirt for five years. The support cast led by Warner Oland and Anna May Wong are thankfully much better and help paper over the deficiencies of the leading man. Oland in particular does fine work as the charming but embittered Eurasian who compensates for his resentment of his mixed blood by indulging in torture and cruelty.

Shanghai Express was released a couple of years back in a 6-disc Dietrich boxset in the UK, although it’s since been made available individually. Universal have presented the film well considering its age, there are speckles and such, and some moments of softness, but it generally looks very good. Detail is quite strong at times and contrast is always good, the latter being especially important for a movie like this. The disc itself is completely barebones, which is a little disappointing but at least it can be bought for next to nothing. For a pre-code film it does seem a little coy in not coming right out and stating exactly how Shanghai Lily earns her keep, but it doesn’t exactly hide the fact either. Although the story is not going to blow anyone away, the intoxicating atmosphere is a real visual treat. Also, considering the weakness of the leading man, it’s a testament to the abilities of Dietrich, Garmes and von Sternberg that the end product is so good. I give it a big thumbs up.

Journey into Fear

£9

I mentioned recently how films set on trains or in creepy old houses are some of my favourites, I should have also included ships and boats while I was at it. Mysteries and thrillers benefit enormously from these confined settings: the sense of claustrophobia is heightened, and then there’s the knowledge that the hero can only run so far. Journey into Fear (1943) has its hero boxed up on a decaying old freighter in the middle of the Black Sea, surrounded by a gallery of grotesques and living in fear of his life. For a film that runs only a little over an hour it’s packed full of memorable scenes, images and characters that tap into a strong noir vibe.

Howard Graham (Joseph Cotten), an engineer employed by an American armaments company, is in wartime Turkey on business. He’s a typical everyman character and, by his own admission, not a very exciting person. When the company’s local rep decides to take him out for a night on the town, Graham finds himself abruptly swept away into a world of intrigue, assassination and terror. It all begins in a night club where Graham narrowly avoids death. The local man, a fawning and obsequious type by the name of Kopeikin (Everett Sloane), has dragged the reluctant Graham into this slightly seedy cabaret, plying him with liquor and women. During an illusionist’s act, for which he has ‘volunteered’, a shot rings out in the darkness and the magician takes the bullet surely meant for Graham. Before the outraged and confused engineer even has time to draw breath he’s hauled off to a meeting with the chief of the Secret Police, Colonel Haki (Orson Welles), who has him bundled aboard a stinking old tub to spirit him safely out of the country. This is the pattern the movie follows, there’s always someone else making decisions for the increasingly bewildered Graham. Of course he tries to wrest the initiative but, in classic noir fashion, he’s always a victim of fate rather than a master of his own destiny. The scenes aboard the ship are full of menace, emphasised by the low angle shots and the deep, dark shadows that seem to follow Graham everywhere. The threat looms even larger when a short stopover allows the assassin Banat (Jack Moss) to come aboard. This character hasn’t one line of dialogue throughout the film but it’s that chilling silence and the bland countenance masked by pebble glasses and a vaguely ludicrous hat that add to his creepiness. When Graham finally disembarks he makes a break for freedom, but fails to get very far. This does, however, set up a thrilling climax atop a hotel ledge in the pouring rain that ties up most of the loose ends.

 

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Journey into Fear is an adaptation of one of Eric Ambler’s finest novels with the screenplay credited to Joseph Cotten. Being a huge and unashamed admirer of Ambler I’m always pleased to see his work represented on the screen, and this movie retains much of the flavour of his writing. Aside from the scripting credit, Joseph Cotten turns in a good performance as the baffled engineer who’s always on his guard but never quite sure who to trust. His plight is one that’s frankly hard to swallow, and there’s a nice little scene where he tries to convince the ship’s captain of the danger he’s in only to have the grizzled old codger laugh in his face. Dolores del Rio (who had a relationship with Welles) first appears as a leopardskin clad dancer in the early night club scene and maintains that feline aura throughout as she slinks around sexily in pursuit of our hero. The rest of the cast (largely drawn from the Mercury players) mainly turn in small but memorable cameo roles. In particular, Jack Moss, who was in fact Welles’ accountant, turns the blood cold every time his ungainly bulk lumbers into the frame and his impassive assassin remains one of the highlights of the movie. Orson Welles plays another of those larger than life figures that seemed an extension of his own personality to great effect in the few scenes where he appears. His trademark slow-quick-slow delivery and the darting eyes that twinkle mischief one minute and glower thunderously the next are ideal for the shady yet menacing Colonel Haki – incidentally, the character of Colonel Haki is one that showed up again in Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios. In truth, Welles’ massive presence dominates the film and his fingerprints are to be found all over the production. Although Norman Foster is credited as director it’s clear to anyone familiar with his work that Welles, at the very least, exerted a huge influence over the shooting. For example, the climactic chase along the slick hotel ledge in the storm uses the kind of dizzying overhead angles that Welles was fond of.

For a number of years now Warners have been promising that a DVD with a restored print of Journey into Fear is on the way in the US, however it still remains a no show. The French company Montparnasse have released the movie in R2 though, and there’s really not much wrong with that edition. The print used is actually in pretty fair shape with good contrast and sharpness, sure there’s the odd scratch and speckle here and there but nothing to fret over. There aren’t any extras save a brief introduction (in French naturally), but if it’s a good print of the movie itself you’re after then the Montparnasse release is very definitely acceptable. Journey into Fear is a stylish little noir film that benefits from the Welles touch and has the quirkiness that’s often found in films he graced with his presence. The pace may feel a little rushed at times but I prefer to think of that as emphasising the urgency of the situation and the danger the hero finds himself in. It certainly gets my recommendation.

Obsession

£2

Seeing as it’s really a style more than anything else, film noir has the ability to cross over and touch on many genres. Of course it’s most often associated with the crime thriller, but there are examples of noirs that are also melodramas, westerns and so on. Horror would seem a natural bedfellow, due to the nightmare quality frequently evoked by film noir, and Obsession (1949) – AKA The Hidden Room – although it’s not a full on horror picture, is what I’d definitely term a chiller.

What we have is essentially a tale of jealousy and revenge plotted in the coldest and most unsettling way. Clive Riordan (Robert Newton) is a respected and successful psychiatrist with a problem in his private life – his wife Storm (Sally Gray) is a kind of serial adulteress. This cultured and rational man who spends his days attempting to cure the neuroses of others finds himself driven to the brink of tolerance and sanity by the faithless nature of his wife. On discovering Storm in a tryst with her latest admirer, an American called Kronin (Phil Brown), he calmly announces that he’s reached his limit and is going to kill the man. There are no histrionics, no outraged dignity, just that cool and grim assertion. It’s here that the story takes a detour into the macabre though. Instead of merely shooting Kronin on the spot, Riordan tells him that they’re first going to take a walk. This is only the beginning of Riordan’s plan and serves to leave his wife uncertain as to the fate of her lover, thus guaranteeing that she should suffer as much mental torment as he can muster. Kronin is kept chained up for months on end in a secret location for two reasons – firstly to allow Riordan to produce him unharmed should there be any chance that the police get on his trail, and secondly to ensure that he has ample time to prepare for the grisly disposal of the body when he finally gets round to doing the deed. The really chilling element is not only Riordan’s detached and matter of fact demeanour, but also the fact that he visits Kronin daily to feed him, ask after his well-being, and assure him of the absolute certainty of his imminent demise. Kronin starts off jaunty and confident but, bit by bit, that cockiness is eroded by his confinement, and his desperation grows as his hopes for salvation recede. All the while, Riordan is engaged in a game of cat and mouse with a deceptively bland Scotland Yard detective (Naunton Wayne) who may or may not be onto him.

£3

Obsession was made in England at a time when Hollywood was a place best avoided for someone like Edward Dmytryk; he could, for a time, put his HUAC troubles behind him and concentrate on making movies. He managed to bring a true noir sense to the film, although it has to be said that the ending is a little too upbeat and drains some of its power. Still, Dmytryk creates an atmosphere of dread and despair by concentrating much of the action in the decrepit cellar where Riordan keeps his rival captive. There aren’t that many outdoor scenes but what we do see of the bombed out city adds to the sense that Kronin is just marking time in a dead landscape. While Robert Newton tends to be remembered for his larger than life portrayals he’s admirably restrained here. The cool and collected facade that he presents is far more effective and frightening than any amount of grand guignol eye rolling. He seems to have every detail worked out and every eventuality covered, so much so that it’s impossible not to share in the desperation of his victim. Even so, there’s a temptation to sympathise a little with him too as his wife is a frankly unpleasant piece of work. Sally Gray invested her character with enough condescension and haughtiness to paper over a fairly wooden performance but, as I don’t think the intention was to have the audience side with her anyway, it works out reasonably well. Phil Brown was fine as the hapless lover taking the fall for his indiscretion, his gradual transformation from a kind of carefree playboy to a man counting down the hours to his death is convincingly done. He’s the one character in the whole set up that you really feel for and it’s hard not to think that he’s been incredibly unfortunate to stumble into such a nightmare. Naunton Wayne doesn’t show up until about the half way mark but he adds a lot to the film. He was excellent at putting over that quality of vagueness that you know is really only a blind to lower the defences of his quarry.

The only DVD of Obsession that I’m aware of is the UK release from Fremantle. The image is passable, there are the nicks, scratches and cue blips that you’d expect from an unrestored print, but the fact that it doesn’t seem to be a progressive transfer is more problematic. On the positive side, it’s fairly sharp and crisp and it’s certainly watchable. There are also cast and crew bios included in text form to round out the package. The film is a good example of British noir, from a director with an excellent pedigree, that is genuinely creepy. You could argue that the pay off isn’t as dark as the build up seems to demand, but it’s still a classy and suspenseful picture. I recommend it.

The Spiral Staircase

£7

There are certain settings that immediately draw me to films, trains usually work work for me as do stories taking place in old, dark houses hiding even darker secrets. By happy coincidence, The Spiral Staircase (1945) derives from the pen of Ethel Lina White who also provided the source material for probably the finest example of a movie set aboard a train – The Lady Vanishes. I guess there’s something tremendously reassuring about watching a cast of characters in mortal danger in a spooky old mansion, lashed by fierce storms, for it’s a formula that’s been used again and again down through the years. The Spiral Staircase works very well as a gothic noir melodrama that’s strong on atmosphere. If it’s approached as a whodunit the effect is lessened considerably – the identity of the killer is pretty obvious right away – but I don’t believe it was ever conceived as such anyway.

Events unfold at some unspecified time in the early years of the 20th century in a small American town. A serial killer is busy in this close community, specialising in the dispatch of young women displaying some physical defect or imperfection. The film opens with one of these murders, a girl with a pronounced limp is done in while downstairs a crowd of townspeople sit in rapt attention at the screening of a silent movie. Among the audience is Helen (Dorothy McGuire), housemaid for a local well-to-do family. Helen’s enjoyment of the silent picture is maybe heightened by the fact that she herself lives in a world of silence – we later learn that Helen is a mute as a result of a childhood trauma. It doesn’t require any great leap of deductive reasoning to see that Helen is likely to feature highly on the killer’s list of potential victims. Indeed, shortly after arriving back at her employers’ creaking old mansion just as a storm of near biblical proportions is breaking that fact is confirmed. As Helen pauses on the landing to check her appearance in the mirror the camera zooms in on the eye of the killer as he watches her secretly. This provides one of the film’s creepiest moments as we see the girl from the deranged perspective of the murderer, her face reflected back from the mirror without a mouth. As I said, the identity of the villain is fairly easy to spot when we’ve been introduced to the various occupants of the house. The owner is a bed-ridden old battle-axe, Mrs Warren (Ethel Barrymore), who shares her home with her two sons (George Brent & Gordon Oliver) – the former a serious minded academic, the latter a wastrel playboy with a roving eye. The rest of the household is made up of a motley collection of servants, although the spectre of Mrs Warren’s late husband hangs heavily over them all. It’s this unseen figure who actually provides the motive for the villain’s urges and forms the basis for the cod psychological explanation that’s practically obligatory in thrillers of this period. The story plays out in fairly standard form, with the heroine’s danger and isolation increasing incrementally as the subsidiary characters are lured away or disposed of one by one. Still and all, the whole thing is done with considerable style, the suspense and atmosphere building steadily towards a satisfying conclusion.

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As far as the acting is concerned, The Spiral Staircase really belongs to the female cast – George Brent, Gordon Oliver and Kent Smith are all passable enough without being especially memorable – and Dorothy McGuire was excellent in conveying mounting fear and paranoia with nothing but facial expression and gestures at her disposal. Both Ethel Barrymore and Elsa Lanchester were inveterate scene stealers and never miss a trick when they’re on screen. Barrymore does tend to slice the ham a little thick on occasion but her scenes are immensely watchable and her verbal jousting with Sara Allgood, as her put upon nurse, is a pleasure in itself. Having said all that, the real star of the show is director Robert Siodmak who moves his camera around the elaborate sets with fluidity and makes optimum use of light and shadow. The climax, taking place largely on the rear staircase, constitutes a virtual checklist of noir motifs, from high and low angle shots through to the shadows of railings creating bars to pin the protagonists helplessly in place.

The UK DVD of The Spiral Staircase from Prism treats the film quite well. There’s good contrast and the image is reasonably clean and sharp with no damage to speak of. There’s a gallery included as well as text bios for members of the cast and crew. To me the movie represents an exercise in how to maintain suspense and atmosphere from a slightly predictable story. The combination of pleasing performances and Siodmak’s assured and professional direction adds up to a very enjoyable movie – it may not hold too many surprises but there’s a lot of fun to be had along the way.

The Last Sunset

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The Last Sunset (1961) is a film that seems to have all the credentials, all the ingredients that go towards making a top flight production: a highly talented director, a fine cast, and a script by a top writer. In spite of all this the final result is a movie that doesn’t quite gel and one that delivers a lot less than it initially promises. As is usually the case when a film proves disappointing, the fault lies with the script. There are some interesting elements which are introduced and then disposed of before they’ve had a chance to play out fully. Generally, this leads to both clutter and a lack of focus. In the end, we’re left with a film that’s not exactly bad but one that could and should have been a whole lot better.

The opening credits play over a dogged pursuit across a southwestern landscape, down into Mexico where the bulk of the action will unfold. O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) is the black clad fugitive, a killer who carries a derringer instead of a six-shooter. Hot on his trail is Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson), a lawman with a personal interest in seeing his quarry brought back to Texas to hang. O’Malley is heading for a ranch run by a faded Virginia gentleman with a fondness for the bottle. The rancher, Breckenridge (Joseph Cotten), happens to be married to O’Malley’s old sweetheart Belle (Dorothy Malone) and it’s soon evident that he’s continued carrying a torch for her for years. The two men strike a deal whereby O’Malley will help Breckenridge drive his herd up to Texas, but he also claims he’s going to take his new partner’s wife off him. That in itself could have provided an interesting scenario, but the script has no intention of remaining so simple. Stribling’s arrival leads to an uneasy truce with hunter and hunted agreeing to pool their talents in order to ensure the success of the cattle drive before settling their own scores. With both newcomers being clearly interested in the charms of Belle the scene looks set for a juicy three-way contest for her affections. However, that’s not to be for Breckenridge soon departs the scene after being gunned down in a cheap cantina. What’s even more frustrating is the fact that moments before his death the audience is treated to revelations about Breckenridge’s shameful past. So, two potentially rich plot veins are left unmined. Instead we’re treated to the seemingly interminable drive to Texas with too much talk and too few sparks. It seems that the producers were aware that they were in danger of bogging the plot down, so three shifty and unscrupulous cowboys, who plan to get in on the white slavery racket, are introduced (Jack Elam, Neville Brand and James Westmoreland) to try to spice up proceedings. Again the opportunity is lost as these characters are killed off before they have the chance to make an impression. The script still has one hole card in reserve though, and it’s a real stinger. Nevertheless, in keeping with the rest of the picture, this gets handled poorly too. The problem is not with the nature of this final reveal, it’s suitably shocking, but the fact that we learn about it too soon. I won’t go into details here lest I spoil things for anybody, but the timing really draws all the tension and drama out of the climactic duel and leaves us with a flat and predictable ending.

£25

With a combination of Robert Aldrich directing and Dalton Trumbo writing, I don’t think it’s unfair to have high expectations. For whatever reason, neither man was at the top of his game on The Last Sunset. Trumbo’s script meanders all over the place and flatters to deceive, with too many plot turns and too many undeveloped ideas. Aldrich allowed the momentum to flag after the first half hour or so and he never really recovered it after that. There are some nice shots, a well filmed sequence during a dust storm, and an attempt to claw back some tension in the climax through quick cutting but none of it adds up to enough to save the film. On top of all this the performances of the two leads are nothing to write home about either. Douglas seemed to be trying for the kind of deadly rascal that Burt Lancaster pulled off in Aldrich’s Vera Cruz but it doesn’t really work for him. Hudson just didn’t convince at all as the driven lawman and he comes across as merely bland. Dorothy Malone and Joseph Cotten were altogether more successful as the Breckenridges; the former exuding a worldly sexuality that made the attention of her various suiters highly credible, while the latter provided a fine portrait of a broken and guilty man. Maybe if Hudson’s character had been the one to snuff it in the cantina we would have got a more compelling film. It’s also a shame that Jack Elam and Neville Brand had to disappear so soon since such character actors were capable of raising the quality of any production.

The Last Sunset was given a release a few years back by Universal in R1 in the Rock Hudson – Screen Legend set. The transfer is a fine anamorphic one and, apart from the odd speckle, there’s not much wrong with it. Colour and sharpness are both strong with good detail. There’s a trailer for the film provided but that’s it as far as extras go. This movie couldn’t be classed as anyone’s finest hour but it’s not a complete dud. There are a handful of worthy performances and the adult theme that becomes apparent as it draws to a close mean that it deserves a look. Let’s just say that it wouldn’t be an ideal introduction to the work of any of the principals

 

The Big Country

 

poster204The Big Country (1958) has been described as a Cold War allegory, and I guess the reasons for that are fairly clear for anyone who wants to see them. It’s also been referred to as a traditional “stranger in a strange land” style tale, which is once again obvious enough. Whilst the latter is a theme that’s been visited too many times to mention, the former tends to date movies badly if that’s all there is on offer; one has only to compare a one-note diatribe like Ralph Nelson’s Soldier Blue to multi-layered works such as Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Richard Brooks’ The Professionals, or Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid to see the difference. What raises The Big Country above a trite critique of contemporary politics and lends it a timeless relevance is the fact that it’s also an examination of man (or should I say men) and what he’s made of. The hero continuously has his masculinity questioned and challenged, and it’s his refusal to play others’ games and conform to preconceived ideas of how he should or should not act that builds up his stature in the viewer’s eyes while, conversely, it is diminished in the eyes of his fellow characters.

Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) is the archetypal easterner come west. His arrival is enough to literally stop the locals in their tracks, gazing in wonder at this alien figure with his trim suit and odd hat. McKay is a seaman who’s come to this new land to wed Pat Terrill (Carroll Baker), daughter of a wealthy rancher. Within a very short time McKay has a run in with Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors) and his brothers, and so gets his first taste of the situation he’s landed himself in. The Hannassey’s are a rough and ready clan of ranchers engaged in an off and on vendetta with McKay’s future father-in-law Major Terrill (Charles Bickford). The cause of the feud is a piece of land that both families covet due to its providing that most valuable of commodities in the parched prairies of the old west, water. Having said that, the bitterness and venom that both Pat and the Major express when speaking of their not so welcome neighbours hints at some deeper source for the rivalry. Right away you can sense McKay’s unease at the raw hatred he’s exposed to, and the fact that he refuses to share in it and even backs off confronting the Hannassey’s shocks his bride-to-be. In fact, McKay seems to do nothing but disappoint his betrothed; he avoids taking a ride on the unbroken horse that’s traditionally wheeled out to give all newcomers a rough welcome, and worst of all turns his back on a fight that the Major’s foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) goads him into. As far as Pat is concerned, these all amount to calculated insults and his shunning of such public displays of machismo cast doubts on his manhood and, by extension, on her pride and judgement. However, the viewer gets to see what Pat and her father don’t: that McKay is no coward, he’s merely a man with a deep sense of personal honour who’s offended by the act of showing off to others and proving to them that which he’s very sure of himself. When Pat rides off in a huff, and the Major and Steve go hunting vengeance, McKay quietly takes out that unbroken horse and sets about taming it. Time and again the animal hurls him into the dust of the corral, and time and again McKay gets back in the saddle until he finally bends it to his will.

The thing about McKay is he’s spent years sailing the oceans of the world and knows full well what hardships he’s capable of enduring. He feels no obligation to show the Major what a big man he is for the simple reason that he’s already proven that to himself. To McKay, that’s all that matters: that a man should know his own abilities and that his woman should believe in him just because she is his woman. For Pat, however, that’s not the case and she comes to feel shame for having chosen a man who regards acts of bravado as beneath him. If further evidence were needed of McKay’s physical courage then it comes in a remarkable night time scene. Having begged off a public brawl with Steve, McKay pays him a nocturnal visit to “say goodbye”. The two men walk out onto the moonlit prairie and engage in a brutal fist fight that was marvellously filmed and choreographed. Director William Wyler shot the whole scene without music and the only sounds heard throughout are the grunts and gasps of the two men punctuated by the thud of bone striking flesh. Wyler also made excellent use of the camera in that scene, alternating between close-up, medium and ever widening long shots that point up not only the isolation of McKay and Steve but also their insect-like insignificance (and indeed the insignificance of their struggle) in that vast landscape. By the end of their bout, as both men stand bruised and bleeding, McKay asks Steve what he thinks that has proved. In addition, there’s also the standoff with Buck late on, when he rides into the Hannassey’s place to try and rescue Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) and head off a bloodbath in the making. As Rufus (Burl Ives), the patriarch of the Hannassey’s, does the honours the two men take the requisite number of paces and turn to face each other down the barrels of McKay’s antique duelling pistols.

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I’ve already mentioned William Wyler’s masterful use of the wide lens, but it’s to be seen all the way through the film. The whole thing is a visual delight that takes in both the sprawling prairie vistas and the blanched rocks of the canyon between Terrill’s ranch and the Hannassey’s place. Blanco Canyon is the setting for the scene that, for me at least, is just about the finest in the picture. The Major has decided that a showdown with the Hannassey’s is unavoidable and sets off to finish things for good. When it becomes apparent that he and his men will be riding into an ambush, the Major turns to Steve for support. However, this man has had his bellyful of mindless violence and says so. The Major rides off alone to meet whatever fate awaits him. Steve has looked on this man as a surrogate father all his life and you can see the anguish etched into his features as he watches him depart. He mounts up, and the camera moves to the mouth of the canyon and the lone figure of the Major. As Jerome Moross’ spine-tingling score slowly builds the angle shifts slightly and Steve gallops into view, drawing level with the Major he looks back to see the rest of the ranch hands come one by one round the rim of the canyon. There’s not a word exchanged between Heston or Bickford but the flickering glances and quickly concealed smiles speak volumes. To me this is cinema at its purest, where visuals, score and subtle expression tell the viewers all they need to know about the nature of a relationship, and in this case what masculinity is about – the importance of loyalty, affection and sheer guts even when good sense should dictate otherwise.

I honestly couldn’t criticise any of the performances and just about every major character felt fully rounded. Peck’s hero is maybe too straight down the line but that’s a minor complaint when you consider that such a role was necessary amid all the complexity elsewhere. Charles Bickford should be the guy to hiss at, but the raw courage and determination he invests in the Major tempers the less savoury aspects. There aren’t really any absolute villains in The Big Country, Chuck Connors comes the closest but even he is more to be pitied than anything. He shows himself to be only a step or two above an animal towards the end but it’s hard not to see him as something of a victim of circumstance in some respects too. I thought Charlton Heston gave one of his best performances in a role that ensured he got to act in a restrained and measured way, his lower billing probably contributing to that. Burl Ives picked up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his part and I’d say he deserved it on the basis of a couple of memorable scenes alone – his gatecrashing of Major Terrill’s party and the climax, where he is forced to do the unthinkable, immediately spring to mind. Both Jean Simmons and Carroll Baker did well portraying two opposite sides of the female character and made the most of their screen time.

MGM’s R2 DVD of The Big Country is slightly disappointing. The anamorphic scope image is generally clean and sharp with good colours but there are some really irritating instances of shimmer, especially when any of the wooden buildings are on view. What’s maybe more annoying is the fact that the disc is practically barebones. This is an important film, and not simply because it’s an epic production; it’s a movie that’s both visually and thematically rich and deserves better. Anyway, despite some reservations about the DVD the film itself is a genuine classic that ought to have a place on the shelf of those who consider themselves western fans, or even just fans of quality cinema.

 

The Tin Star

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The westerns of Anthony Mann are generally among the highest regarded in the canon. It’s therefore a little odd that one of the movies he made during his purple patch in the 50s is frequently overlooked when his work is discussed. However, this certainly seems to be the case with The Tin Star (1957). I think this may be partly due to one of the casting decisions and, to a lesser extent, to the ending that is just too upbeat and out of touch with the events that preceded it.

The dominant theme in The Tin Star is justice: the definition, mechanics and importance of justice in a frontier environment where civilization was still in its infancy. Parallel to this is the theme of maturity; the need for a man to learn judgement from those who have gone before, and by extension the need for a new society to learn from the past and thus achieve maturity. Ben Owens (Anthony Perkins) is a young sheriff who’s so green he’s unlikely to hold the position – or indeed stay in one piece – for long if someone doesn’t come to his aid fast. His saviour turns up in the unlikely guise of a professional bounty hunter called Morgan Hickman (Henry Fonda). When Hickman rides into town to deliver a corpse and collect the bounty he finds the sheriff in the back of his office practising his draw, looking for all the world like an overgrown schoolboy playing at being a grown-up. The truth is Owens isn’t much more than a juvenile when it comes to law enforcement and has only got his job because no one else wanted it. That’s not strictly true, there was one other candidate – local loudmouth and rabble-rouser Bart Bogardus (Neville Brand). Sooner or later a confrontation between Bogardus and Owens will have to take place, and it falls to Hickman to tutor the young lawman in the art of reading men and facing down threatening situations. Along the way we learn more about the enigmatic Hickman; he too was once a sheriff before the callousness and hypocrisy of his employers drove him out of the job. Owens is danger not only of becoming the victim of Bogardus’ desire for his badge but also of suffering the same fate Hickman once did. The murder of one of the town’s prominent citizens leads to the capture of two outlaw brothers and the organisation of a lynch mob by Bogardus. It’s at this point that the townsmen show their true colours and, reminiscent of High Noon, turn tail and abdicate all responsibility for justice or law. There’s also a nasty undercurrent of racism running through this settlement, personified by the bullying and hate-filled Bogardus but tacitly accepted by the so-called pillars of society too. The two prisoners are stated to be half breeds (and almost damned for that reason alone) and the woman who Hickman’s been lodging with is an outcast due to her having married an Indian and borne his child. The fact that the movie ends on such a positive, optimistic note after Owens has had to prove himself to the craven and distasteful inhabitants of his town strikes a false note.

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Anthony Mann mixed up the location and studio work to good effect and produced a western that’s full of important ideas punctuated with the occasional burst of violent action. There are some nice stylistic touches too, such as the climactic duel with the loser falling back into the camera. At the beginning I mentioned what I felt were the two biggest flaws with the film; I’ve already alluded to the unsatisfactory ending, but the casting of Anthony Perkins in the central role of the naive young sheriff didn’t work for me. It’s understandable that an actor was required who could be convincing as a nervy greenhorn lacking in self-confidence, but Perkins does that so well that his later development into a competent town tamer just jars too much. Neville Brand played Bogardus as some kind of malign force of nature, bellowing and bullying his way to the head of a bloodthirsty mob. Again he nailed this perfectly, so much so that it’s really stretching credibility to have the slight figure of Perkins striding across a night time street to slap him into galled submission. Henry Fonda was always at home in western roles and Morgan Hickman is another of his top class performances. He manages to invest some genuine sadness and melancholy into the role of a man who’s lost his family and seen his ideals bruised. There’s tenderness on view too, especially in the scenes where he interacts with the half Indian son of his landlady, and to round it all off he has the necessary mettle to be believable as a bounty killer. It’s also worth noting that while the bounty hunter came to be seen as a staple of the genre (particularly with the rise of the spaghetti western), that certainly wasn’t the case in 1957 and Fonda’s role was something of an exception.

The Tin Star is a Paramount property, and their R1 DVD provides a handsome 1.78:1 anamorphic presentation of the movie. The image is strong and clean with good contrast but the disc itself is totally barebones. Anthony Mann made better known, and indeed better, films than this but it’s still a remarkably strong western that’s only let down by the softened climax and less than convincing character arc of Perkins’ sheriff. It could have offered a scathing critique of a society that would rather pass on the dirty work of law enforcement to those it can then despise (and it does flirt with the notion) but bottled out in the end. Still, Mann’s direction of the material can’t be criticised and Fonda’s powerful performance anchors everything firmly. All things considered, there are more positives than negatives on show and this is a film I would definitely recommend.

 

The River’s Edge

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Some movies are especially difficult to define or categorize. Allan Dwan’s The River’s Edge (1957) is certainly such a film; it’s a blend of modern western, noirish thriller, and lush and lusty 50s melodrama. While it’s possible to argue over which one of those labels comes closest to summing it up, it’s clear enough that this is a B movie which was given the glossy treatment. As such, this is an impressive piece of budget film production, dealing with those classic themes of money, greed, jealousy, love, and there’s a level of casual brutality not usually found in films of the period.

The story concerns three people: Ben Cameron (Anthony Quinn), his new wife Meg (Debra Paget), and Meg’s former lover Nardo Denning (Ray Milland). Right away we can see that Cameron’s relationship with his wife is not all it should be; she’s tottering around his ramshackle ranch house in high heeled slippers, struggling with the lack of modern conveniences, while he’s struggling with steers outside. The thing is Meg is a city girl, actually she’s con artist on the lam, while Cameron is a salt of the earth type whose greatest ambition is to make something out of his fledgling ranch. These two have hooked up together and are trying to make a go of it, but it’s starting to come unravelled. At the critical moment, who should turn up at Cameron’s door but his wife’s old flame Denning, apparently looking to hire a guide to take him on a hunting trip into Mexico. Meg takes off with Denning, at least as far as the nearest motel, and it’s unclear at this point whether she truly means to leave her husband for good. At any rate, she never gets to fully decide as a car ride results in Denning killing a border patrol man in a fairly shocking manner. With Meg now implicated in the crime, and with the knowledge that Denning is carrying a suitcase stuffed full of cash, Cameron has a change of heart and decides that he’ll take the two former partners over the border to safety. The rest of the film charts the shifting nature of the characters’ relationships and motives. At the begining none of them act out of anything but naked self interest: Denning just wants an out and doesn’t especially care who he has to buy or kill to achieve it, Meg wants to escape from the drudgery and dullness of the remote ranch, and Cameron has his hungry eyes on the cash. Everything is complicated by the fact that both men are still love with Meg, and she has no qualms about playing one off against the other and flitting back and forth between them. The real turning point, for her character at least, comes after she gets a serious infection from a cut arm. When Cameron hacks away the poisoned flesh in a storm ravaged cave it’s as though some of the poison also drains away from Meg’s heart. From then on, the positions are clearly defined and the only question remaining is who will survive the hazards of the wilderness and walk away with the money.

More dangerous than a rattlesnake? Milland, Quinn and Paget in The River's Edge

In the latter years of a very long career Allan Dwan specialised in churning out slick little B movies on a budget, and The River’s Edge is a good example of this work. He packs a whole lot of story into less than 90 minutes and makes it all look a good deal more expensive than it has any right to. The combination of location shooting and studio sets blends together well and the use of colour is stunning in places. He also displays what might be termed a more modern approach to violence and death than was normally the case at the time; the three killings which take place, although not graphic in the current sense, occur with an abruptness that retain the ability to shock. The three leads are very professional and do their level best to lift the movie above its pulp roots. Ray Milland was of course in his twilight years as a leading man but just about pulls it off, his charming sadist who may yet have a small grain of decency buried deep is effective enough to distract you from the fact that he was probably too old for the part. Debra Paget (with a flaming red hairdo) is a fine femme fatale who’s by turns calculating, ruthless and affectionate. Her character arguably goes through the greatest arc of the three, and she handles the move from a scheming bitch to a woman who’s regained some sense of honour quite capably. Anthony Quinn starts off as a basically weak loser who can’t even summon up the will to hang onto his woman, but by the end he comes good and redeems himself somewhat. I say somewhat because there’s still an element of doubt and a shadow of greed hanging over him.   

The River’s Edge came out on DVD in the US a few years ago from Fox in a very attractive edition. The transfer is anamorphic scope and the print used is very clean and colourful. The disc has a commentary track from James Ursini and Alain Silver, and a few trailers and a gallery. This is the kind of movie that probably wouldn’t stand a cat in hell’s chance of seeing a DVD release in the current climate, all the more reason to appreciate its availability. There is no way that The River’s Edge could ever be termed a classic movie, but it is a tight and entertaining little thriller given a highly professional polish. Everything moves along at a lick and there are far worse ways of spending an hour and a half. All in all, it serves as a pretty good introduction to the later works of Allan Dwan.

The Black Windmill

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When a film gets panned by critics there can be a number of reasons why; it may just be a bad movie, or it may simply be a step down from the director’s/actor’s previous work. I’d say the latter is certainly the case with The Black Windmill (1974). Don Siegel had just come off a run of high quality films and this slow burning espionage thriller didn’t quite match up. In truth it’s not a bad film, it has moments of real style, but there is a flatness about it that’s hard to explain.

John Tarrant (Michael Caine) is a former army officer who’s now in the employ of MI6, and is shown to be involved in setting up a sting operation to net some international arms dealers. It’s clear that something else is taking shape in the background though – the opening sequence has just shown the kidnapping of two schoolboys by those allegedly involved in the gun running. One of these boys turns out to be the son of Tarrant, and it quickly becomes apparent that the abduction is being used as leverage to extort money from British Intelligence. It’s also clear that those behind the abduction have the kind of inside knowledge (the nature of the ransom demanded) that suggests the presence of a mole. Tarrant’s superior, Harper (Donald Pleasence), suspects that he may even have orchestrated the whole thing himself, while his estranged wife (Janet Suzman) blames him and his job. Thus Tarrant finds himself in the unenviable position of having to cope with both the suspicions of his bosses and the recriminations of his wife as he struggles to retain the composure and coolness needed to effect the release of his son. When it dawns on him that Harper has no intention of meeting the kidnappers’ demands Tarrant chooses the only option that remains open to him – going “rogue” and risking the wrath of his own people.

Fading into the shadows - Michael Caine and Janet Suzman.  

Don Siegel made a lot of different kinds of movies but the espionage thriller wasn’t really his strong suit and he struggled to leave his mark on The Black Windmill. A couple of years later he would return to the genre with greater success in the more action driven Telefon, which remains more consistently entertaining. It’s really in the latter half of this movie that you actually become aware of the fact that you’re watching a Siegel picture. The chase through the London Underground and the escape sequence in Paris are well filmed and add a much needed sense of urgency as events build towards the violent climax at the titular windmill. In contrast, the first half unfolds at a fairly leisurely pace as characters are introduced and the groundwork is laid. There’s also a tongue in cheek aspect to these earlier scenes; one inspired moment during an MI6 briefing has a room of stunned bigwigs informed that one of the enemy agents is Sean Connery! There’s another nod to Bond in a scene where Tarrant and Harper watch a demonstration of an exploding briefcase carried out by a Q clone. Much of the film’s humour derives from the performance of Donald Pleasence as the fussy and prissy head of MI6. Michael Caine, on the other hand, plays it straight all the way through and is good enough as the agent who has to keep his emotions under tight control. When he finally gives vent to his frustration at the bureaucratic caution that might lead to his son’s death it comes across as more powerful given the detached facade he’s been presenting up to that point. Janet Suzman is limited to bouts of anxiety and bitterness at the beginning but gets to show off her resourcefulness as the story progresses. The two main villains of the piece are John Vernon and Delphine Seyrig – they’re both suitably ruthless but their characters are ultimately one dimensional.

Universal’s UK DVD presents the film in anamorphic scope, and the transfer is very clean and smooth. This is another fairly basic disc, no extras offered at all, but the the image is pleasing enough and anyway it’s not one of Siegel’s or Caine’s better known movies. All told, The Black Windmill is a middling film; it’s not the best of the director, star or even the genre but it’s still reasonably entertaining. If you make it through the slightly plodding beginning it does pick up the pace and gets better as it goes along. I’d give it a cautious recommendation if you’re into spy thrillers, but those expecting a typical Don Siegel movie would likely be disappointed.