3 Godfathers

 

MPW-9143There haven’t been too many westerns that are set around Christmas, in fact I’m struggling to think of any others apart from 3 Godfathers (1948) and the earlier versions of the same story. While it starts out as a fairly standard western it soon turns into a play on the nativity story and the journey of the three wise men. It’s one of John Ford’s more sentimental pieces and the symbolism is laid on a little thick at times, but the cast and visuals carry it through the sticky patches. I’ll grant that the whole thing can seem a bit contrived yet the story, and its message of redemption and the good that lurks within all of us, remains affecting.

The movie opens in fairly conventional fashion, with the three main protagonists Robert Hightower (John Wayne), Pedro (Pedro Amendariz) and The Abilene Kid (Harry Carey Jr) surveying a town they’re about to enter and rob. Before they can get down to business, however, they get chatting to a local resident (Ward Bond) who turns out to be the local lawman. Thus far much of the action is played for laughs, and broad Fordian laughs at that, and the light heartedness even extends to the raid on the bank. The first really serious note is struck when The Abilene Kid takes a bullet to the shoulder as they attempt their getaway. As the three men race out into the desert with the law hot on their heels, one shot finds its target and punctures the vitally important water bag. Safe in the knowledge that no one is going to travel far in the parched wilderness with only a limited supply of water the lawman eases back and sets about laying a trap. That singe shot has essentially sealed the fate of the three outlaws, as they discover that the law (with the help of the railroad) is one jump ahead of them and bent on keeping them away from any source of water. In an effort to outsmart the authorities, the men double back but in so doing stumble upon a situation that will bring about profound changes within them all. They come across an abandoned wagon containing a pregnant woman who’s about to give birth. Their most basic human instincts are aroused by this pitiful scene and, after seeing that the baby is delivered, find themselves giving their oath to the now dying mother to protect her infant son. From this point on a gradual transformation takes place wherein each man suppresses his own selfish needs in order to ensure the fulfillment of their promise. As they trudge across the gruelling desert, shedding their possessions along the way, they come to view the protection of their new godson as the only purpose in their lives. As such, their trek turns into a kind of pilgrimage to cleanse themselves of the evil that had motivated them until that time. As I said the symbolism can be a little heavy handed (following a star to the town of New Jerusalem etc.) but the hardship of the journey and the fact that these hardened criminals are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of an innocent and a promise prevents the film from becoming a parody.

John Ford opened the film with an onscreen tribute to his departed friend Harry Carey Sr and then took the further step of casting the latter’s son in the pivotal role of The Abilene Kid, the conscience of the three bad men. However, that’s about as far as the old man’s sentimentality went for it’s well documented that he drove his cast mercilessly in the searing heat of Death Valley. Despite, or maybe because, of this the performances of the three leads are first rate. Carey in particular is touching as the callow youth who’s simultaneously running from and striving to retain some of his boyish innocence. The way he calmly accepts his fate before such thoughts enter his companions’ heads is a fine piece of acting. In fact, Ford granted the young man some of the best scenes in the movie: singing over the grave of the baby’s mother and then his own death scene. Both Armendariz and Wayne were handed more straightforward roles as the older and more experienced men and they don’t disappoint either. The part of Robert Hightower has none of the complexity of Wayne’s more famous and prestigious performances yet he does all the script and director ask of him, and carries the picture alone for a significant time. The bulk of the action takes place outdoors on location in Death Valley and Ford creates some beautiful and bleak images – the dust storm (with all its attendant symbolism) being a particular highlight. The support cast is filled up with all the familiar faces from the “Stock Company”, Ward Bond and Mae Marsh getting the lion’s share of the screen time.

3 Godfathers is widely available on DVD from Warner. I have the R2 disc, but I’ve heard that the US version is the same, and the transfer is a good one. Print damage is minimal and the colour is strong, the outdoor scenes faring best to my eyes. The only extra included is the theatrical trailer, and a variety of subtitle options. While this is not one of Ford’s very best, it remains a top film by anyone’s standards. In a way, it’s what you might call a typical Ford movie in that it contains most of his trademark visual and thematic motifs. All in all, it’s a satisfying and uplifting production that works well both as a seasonal film and as a traditional western.

Finally, as this will be my last post before the holidays I want to take the time to wish all those who have followed, commented or just stopped by a very happy and peaceful Christmas. Be seeing you again in the New Year.

 

Cash on Demand

 

 

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Well it’s almost that time of year again. Therefore, it’s also time to feature a few films that in one way or another relate to Christmas. Aside from the big, traditional crowd pleasers it’s always nice to give a bit of attention to those other movies that can sometimes get lost in the mix. Cash on Demand (1961) is a good example – an obscure little Hammer production whose reputation ought to rise now that it’s finally available to view on DVD. It’s a tight and incredibly suspenseful little thriller that skilfully weaves a seasonal message into the tense plot and leaves the viewer feeling satisfied.

It’s December 23rd and a small provincial bank is opening up and preparing to welcome the first customers of a wintry day. The staff arrive one by one and greet each other in the familiar and informal way of those long accustomed to working together. Thoughts run to the upcoming staff party and the atmosphere is warm and cosy. However, the arrival of the branch manager, Fordyce (Peter Cushing), causes a definite chill to settle over the establishment. Fordyce is a fastidious and uptight man, almost to the point of caricature. His overwhelming sense of propriety not only dampens the pre-Christmas humour of his subordinates, but leaves them feeling both threatened and vulnerable. A minor error on the part of one of the staff is latched onto and blown out of all proportion. Fordyce even goes so far as to declare that he’ll have to seriously consider the future of this long serving employee. The whole dynamic changes, however, with the unexpected arrival of an insurance company representative, Colonel Gore Hepburn (Andre Morell). Hepburn explains he is on a tour of the banks covered by his company in order to inspect their security arrangements due to the increased risk of robberies. In fact, Hepburn is not all he claims to be, and it soon transpires that he is merely using this cover story as a means to gain access to the bank and carry out a raid on the well stocked vault that is both audacious and ruthless in its execution. From this point on the story turns into a psychological duel between Fordyce and Hepburn, with the latter rarely relinquishing the upper hand. This all plays out both as a straight thriller and a new spin on the Scrooge story, with Hepburn’s tormenting of Fordyce serving the dual purpose of facilitating his co-operation while also teaching the fussy branch manager an object lesson in the importance of charity towards his fellow man. It could be argued that the ending cops out, but I’d say that were it not to finish up the way it does then the story’s whole point would be lost – and with it much of the magic that distinguishes the movie from countless other heist pictures.

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Although director Quentin Lawrence made a handful of cinema features the bulk of his work was in TV, and that background actually serves him well here. The tighter pacing and limited sets common to the small screen are to the fore in this movie. The action (which is essentially played out in real time) is for the most part confined to the bank, and particularly Fordyce’s office and the underground vault. While I wouldn’t exactly call it claustrophobic, it does have the effect of focusing the attention on the actors. Not wishing to take anything away from the support cast, but this is basically a two-hander between Cushing and Morell. The pair had formed a successful partnership two years earlier in Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and this film gave them the opportunity to team up again, albeit in very different roles. Cushing’s portrayal of Fordyce is really spot on, all icy efficiency and repressed emotion at the beginning but gradually cracking under the enormous pressure to reveal a lonely soul who elicits genuine sympathy. There’s nothing fake about the transformation in Fordyce’s character, the change of perception coming about slowly and convincingly as Hepburn mercilessly strips away the veneer to expose the true man. If anything Andre Morell just about trumps Cushing’s work in this one. He plays Hepburn as suave, smart, hearty, calculating, ruthless and wry – often all within a single short scene, and always with absolute conviction. The result of all this is that the viewer’s sympathy is continually being toyed with to such an extent that it’s almost impossible to decide who you’re really rooting for. It’s a treat to watch these two old pros holding the floor for virtually the whole movie, and doing so in such a mesmerizing fashion.

Currently, Cash on Demand is only available on DVD as part of the Hammer- Icons of Suspense set from Sony in the US. The film has been transferred at 1.66:1 anamorphic, and it’s very clean, sharp and detailed. Since all the titles in the set come two to a disc it may be that the bit rate suffers a little, but that’s not an issue that I can say I noticed when I watched it. There are no extra features at all, although the highly attractive price and the fact that the whole set offers six extremely rare Hammer thrillers offsets any complaints on that score. This is a film that I first saw at least twenty years ago when it got a TV showing, and then not again until I picked up this set. It’s one of those unusual movies that sticks in the mind once viewed, and it was high up on my list of wants for a long time. The Icons set is one of my favourite releases from 2010 and the presence of Cash on Demand is a large part of the reason. It’s well worth tracking this one down.

 

Devil’s Doorway

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Before 1950 the injustices visited upon the Native American people were essentially ignored, or at the very least only touched on, in the cinema. However, in the space of a year two major Hollywood productions would use the plight of the Indian as their central theme. Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow was notable for its sympathetic portrayal of the Apache, but Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway (1950) went even further by concentrating on the naked and ugly racism confronting those Indians who had done their best to embrace the ways and laws of the white man. It’s a much more tragic film than Broken Arrow and consequently more powerful; the fact that this power remains undiminished even for a modern audience demonstrates just how radical a picture this must have been sixty years ago.

Lance Poole (Robert Taylor) is a Shoshone who has decided to adopt the classic American mindset i.e. looking to the future rather than dwelling on the past. Not only has he anglicized his name but he has also taken a huge leap of faith by enlisting in the white man’s army and fighting in the Civil War. Returning home to Wyoming as a highly decorated veteran (having won the Congressional Medal of Honor no less), he is full of optimism and hopes for a bright future. He’s confident that the recent horrors of the battlefield will have purged the nation of its desire for further bloodshed. However, soon after his triumphant return he has to face the fact that not everything or everyone has changed as much as he might have hoped. The old grudges and prejudices still live on in the hearts of some, notably an eastern lawyer, Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern), who’s moved to Wyoming for his health. Coolan’s snide comments are only a foretaste of what’s to come though, as the local doctor’s refusal to attend to Poole’s ailing father until it’s too late proves. While Poole busies himself building up his cattle ranch and his fortune, Coolan is angling for a chance to seize the ancestral land and teach the red man a lesson on climbing above his station in life. Coolan’s opportunity comes with the Homestead Act, which allowed for the breaking up of former tribal land into individual claims, and he encourages a mass migration of sheepmen in the hopes of forcing Poole off his land. Although Poole is  initially persuaded to hold his fire and try for a compromise by female lawyer, Orrie Masters (Paula Raymond), the scene is set for violent confrontation between the Shoshone and the sheepmen that Coolan is ruthlessly manipulating. As tensions rise, and the viewer’s outrage at the double standards and open bigotry on display similarly escalate, Poole must finally concede that his dreams of peaceful co-existence are nothing more than the foolish longings of a man too eager to buy into the glib promises of pragmatic politicians. When he dons his old uniform, with his medal proudly pinned in place, to face the same army that he once served with distinction there is a poignancy and irony that drives the message of the film home most eloquently.

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Anthony Mann had spent the 40s building up his reputation with a series of tight little noirs frequently lensed by master cameraman John Alton. Both men brought their style and sensibility to a western setting in Devil’s Doorway. Given Mann and Alton’s background it’s not altogether surprising that the movie has both the look and feel of a film noir; there are plenty of dark, shadowy scenes and an abundance of low angle shots. One scene that highlights this perfectly is the fist fight that Poole is goaded into in the saloon by Coolan and one of his cohorts. Everything is shot in the cramped confines of the bar with smoke and shadow blending together as the two men hammer each other savagely – there’s no musical accompaniment to distract from the sound of the punches landing, and the quick cutting alternates between the increasingly battered faces of the fighters and the even more grotesque visages of the rubbernecking customers. Having said that, there’s no shortage of more traditional genre imagery either, and Mann demonstrates a breadth of vision and skill with large-scale action scenes that would be further developed in both his later westerns and epics. For me, Robert Taylor was convincing as the Shoshone warrior caught between two camps. He injected a huge amount of humanity into the role of Lance Poole and produced a fully rounded character that transcended the “noble savage” caricature. I guess the black and white photography helps, but I never caught myself thinking that this was just a guy in dark make-up playacting. Louis Calhern also did sterling work as the slimy lawyer who uses convenient statutes as a means of disguising his own prejudices. Paula Raymond was good enough as the woman caught in the middle, but the script shies away from depicting an all-out romance with Poole – the movie was in all honesty already pushing the envelope as far as could be expected for the era. I might also mention the strong support particularly from Spring Byington and Edgar Buchanan.

Currently, there are only two editions of Devil’s Doorway available on DVD. There is an MOD disc from the Warner Archive in the US and a Region 2 pressed disc from Warner/Impulso in Spain. From the perspective of international customers neither one is ideal – the US disc being both expensive to acquire and on potentially suspect media, while the Spanish release is exclusive to El Corte Ingles for who knows how long with the attendant shipping costs. I viewed the Spanish disc, and the transfer is generally a strong one with good contrast and detail. However, it is unrestored and there are the usual scratches, nicks and blemishes – though never to the point of distraction. There is English and Spanish audio with removable Spanish subs. The disc comes in a slip case with a 34 page booklet, in Spanish naturally, that contains a very nice selection of still photographs and original advertising material. When one considers the development of the western, and the career of Anthony Mann too, this is an important title. As such, it’s disappointing that it should be marketed so restrictively on both sides of the Atlantic. However, the Spanish disc does at least afford the film a degree of respect that’s lacking in the US release. Devil’s Doorway seems to have got lost between Mann’s earlier noir pictures and his subsequent psychological westerns, but it actually acts as something of a bridge. It’s a film that’s intellectually and emotionally satisfying while it also provides solid western entertainment. Recommended.

Odd Man Out

Today is the third birthday of Riding the High Country, and for that reason I wanted to feature a movie that occupies a special place in my affections. Belfast isn’t a city that one would normally associate with film noir. Still and all, it’s not such an outlandish setting when you actually think about it a little. It’s a city with an especially dark past (and a future that remains far from certain for that matter) that’s seen more than its fair share of death and mayhem. Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947) uses the shadowy post-war city as the backdrop for a story that’s a haunting mix of tragedy, love and intrigue. It’s also a very Irish tale, and perhaps that’s why it has always resonated with me and fascinated me.

It’s the story of one man’s last hours, and how this impacts on his friends, enemies and even those who are strangers. Johnny McQueen (James Mason) is the OC of the IRA in Belfast (the film never specifically identifies the name or the place, referring only to “the organisation” and “a Northern Irish city”, but that’s the what and the where in any case) who’s only recently escaped from prison. He’s been laid up in a safe house and is about to emerge again to lead a robbery. Although doubts are expressed about his suitability for the task, due to his having been out of circulation for so long, he shrugs them off and insists on going ahead with the plan. The raid proves disastrous through a combination of bad luck, physical weakness on Johnny’s part, and the incompetence and cowardice of his associates. The end result is that is a man is killed, Johnny is shot and wounded, and worst of all is abandoned on the streets of Belfast. As the light begins to fade and the temperature drops, one man sets out on his final journey around the city while the police cast their net and the avenues of escape are progressively narrowed. This torturous odyssey of a dying man takes on a dreamlike quality as he stumbles through darkly hostile backstreets and decaying tenements. Along the way he crosses paths with a motley selection of characters who respond variously with charity, pity and fear – but always with an undercurrent of suspicion and self-interest at the back of it. In a sense the film offers a sneak peak at the flip side of the Irish character that all of us born on that island know about but rarely acknowledge. The complex and frankly dangerous history of Northern Ireland, which frequently left many ordinary people caught precariously in the middle, probably intensified this. The resultant attitude was born of a combination of “whatever you say, say nothing” and “but what’s in it for me”, and was maybe the only alternative if you wanted to survive. If that all sounds a little negative, there’s something altogether finer at the heart of the picture though. Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan), Johnny’s girl, is driven on not by any base interest but by her love. She knows that she has no future with this doomed fugitive, but her devotion sees her scour the snowbound city for him so she can protect him and simply be with him. When the couple eventually unite on the icy docks in the shadow of the Albert clock, with the police closing in remorselessly, it’s Kathleen who takes the only option open to her to ensure they remain together. That finale has real emotional power that refuses to fade however many times it’s viewed.

Sometimes I think it’s strange that it should be a British crew, writer and leading man that managed to get so deeply into the Irish mindset. On the other hand, maybe it takes an outsider to see people as they are and thus it’s easier for them to strip away the superficial and get to the essence. Of course, author and screenwriter F L Green was married to an Irishwoman and lived in Belfast so he did have first hand knowledge to draw upon. Carol Reed’s commonly acknowledged masterpiece is The Third Man, and that film is regarded as the cornerstone of his reputation. However, over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that Odd Man Out is the better movie. Stylistically, both films use  similar techniques –  disconcertingly tilted angles, deep shadow, and a forbidding city as a backdrop. Odd Man Out is the more intimate story though and it’s plot is simpler and more emotionally involving, which gives it the edge for me. James Mason is simply immense as the dead man walking, and the role of Johnny McQueen remained the one he rated highest for the rest of his life. I also feel he gave his greatest performance in what was a very difficult part, conveying an enormous amount of pathos and emotion with only minimal dialogue. It’s heartbreaking to see this shambling figure shunted from person to person, with the only thought in most of their heads being how to get shot of this burden before disaster befalls them too. Kathleen Ryan’s work is memorable too as the only person who actually cares for Johnny. The scene in the priest’s house when she talks of her love and how it has consumed her totally is exceptionally moving and all the more effective and credible due to her understated acting. I’ve already mentioned the powerful finale and it’s worth noting that the restraint of both Mason and Ryan contributes significantly to its success. The rest of the cast is dominated by fine Irish character players with strong theatrical backgrounds. A few notable exceptions are William Hartnell as a nervy barman, and Robert Newton as a half-crazed artist bent on painting Johnny’s portrait in order to capture the truth about life as seen through the eyes of a dying man. Newton’s performance is probably the weakest part of the whole film, being far too hammy and ostentatious. The location filming in Belfast adds to the authenticity of the picture and Robert Krasker managed to capture the threatening feel of the city by night. As a footnote, it’s also worth mentioning that the Crown Bar featured in the film (although the interiors were actually a pretty accurate studio reproduction) still exists and looks the same. It’s across the street from the Europa, Europe’s most bombed hotel, and I drank there many times when I lived in Belfast as a student.

The UK DVD of Odd Man Out from Network is a wonderful presentation. It sports one of the best B&W transfers out there with deep, rich blacks and excellent contrast. It’s also loaded with quality extras including a documentary on Mason, an archive interview with the star, the script and a gallery. There’s also a 24 page booklet by Steve Rogers which is very detailed and full of great stills and advertising material. This title was also available as part of Optimum’s James Mason Collection, but I have no idea how that disc stacks up, and anyway it looks as though the Optimum set has gone or is about to go out of print. This film is one of my all-time favourites and I can’t praise it highly enough. Apart from the startling visuals and heartfelt performances, it’s notable that this picture succeeds in rising above the political minefield of its setting to tell a marvellously human story that’s not afraid of probing the darkness before ending on a note of hopeful tragedy…and that’s about as Irish a paradox as you can get. If you haven’t seen this film yet then you’ve been missing out on a piece of cinema that is exceptionally fine.

 

While the City Sleeps

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Crime, betrayal, duplicity and grasping, ruthless ambition. All these are ideal ingredients for any film noir, and when you throw in the hard-bitten and cynical milieu of the newspaperman it serves merely to add a little extra kick to an already potent cocktail. While the City Sleeps (1956) contains all of the above and boasts a cast that’s packed to the rafters with heavy hitters. As if that weren’t enough, it’s directed by a genre specialist whose pre-Hollywood influence on the look and mood of film noir is immense.

The plot involves two parallel stories that slowly converge – the first being an investigation of a serial killer on the loose in New York, and the second a cold appraisal of the backstabbing world of the media. What draws both strands together is the contest engineered by Walter Kyne (Vincent Price) to find a new administrator for his recently inherited media empire. Kyne is a spoiled and idle incompetent who hasn’t a clue how to run the business his father left him. But he’s no fool, and he hits on the idea of playing his top men off against each other with the prize of a newly created executive post up for grabs. Whoever can run down and nail the so-called “Lipstick Killer” will take the honours and the top job. Three men are desperate for this promotion: Mark Loving (George Sanders) – head of the wire service, John Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell) – editor of the newspaper, and Harry Kritzer (James Craig)  – picture editor. The company’s star TV newscaster, Ed Mobley (Dana Andrews), also finds himself roped into this race to find a murderer and thus capture the spoils. The actual investigation of the crime takes a back seat – the audience knows who it is from the pre-credits sequence – and the main thrust is how these media types are prepared to tear each other, the ones they love, and their already slightly tarnished morals apart for the sake of professional advancement. To further complicate matters, the personal relationships of Mobley, Kyne, Loving and Kritzer all become hopelessly entangled as the pressure mounts and the killer remains at large and active. The hunt for the murderer draws to an exciting close in the subway tunnels below the city, but the question of who will walk away with the promotion remains unclear until the very last scene. Along the way, the audience is treated to a marvellous dissection of not only the flexible ethics of journalism, but also the mercenary nature of humanity.

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After spending twenty years making movies in Hollywood, Fritz Lang was nearing the end of his American career. In terms of look and style While the City Sleeps may seem like a watered down version of his previous noir pictures. However, what it lacks in visuals and budget is made up for in cynicism and sourness. None of the main characters behave in an honourable way either in their private lives or their professional ones. Many newspaper dramas down through the years have used the device of the story being everything, but this time not even that old chestnut holds sway. Everybody marches to the tune of ambition and they’re all ready to go to whatever lengths are necessary to achieve it. Dana Andrews, in between drinks, even sinks so low as to use his own fiancee as bait to smoke the killer out. He is the character the audience is supposed to identify most closely with, being persuaded to take part in the grotesque contest (at least initially) as a favour to a friend. However, he’s a shabby kind of hero who really only redeems himself at the end by finally speaking the truth regardless of the consequences. George Sanders very much conforms to type as the smooth and vaguely caddish wire service boss who knows all the right people but struggles to get to grips with the seedier characters likely to hold the key to this case.

Ida Lupino does great work as the gossip columnist and occasional girlfriend of Sanders, who agrees to do his spade work for him. She has some nice scenes with Andrews where they both let their wandering eyes off the leash while simultaneously trying to pump each other for information. In truth, there was far better chemistry between Andrews and Lupino than was the case with Sally Forrest, who played his fairly insipid girl. Vincent Price’s role is all effete indolence without any of the menace that he was capable of conveying. Right up to the end he’s blissfully unaware that his faithless trophy wife, Rhonda Fleming, is carrying on an affair with James Craig’s slippery picture editor. Out of this large ensemble cast, the most sympathetic performance came from Thomas Mitchell – the old school editor/reporter who chomps away on cigars and lacks only the press pass jammed into his hat band. Sure he’s every bit as consumed as the others, but back of those slightly wild eyes there remains a flicker of decency – and it’s him you find yourself really rooting for. The only seriously weak link is provided by John Barrymore Jr as the mother’s boy killer with some major issues. One of the best scenes in the movie – him watching the telecast where Andrews profiles the then unknown murderer in disparaging and insulting terms – is very nearly scuppered by Barrymore’s appalling mugging and overacting.

While the City Sleeps has finally made an appearance on DVD courtesy of Exposure Cinema in the UK. The film is presented in 1.33:1 ratio, and according to the distributors this decision was taken due to the condition of the elements – i.e. the image would have been too soft to matte and blow up for widescreen. It’s an open-matte presentation, the film should have been presented flat 1.85:1 in the US (and probably 2:1 Superscope in Europe), and was clearly protected for possible academy ratio showings. There is plenty of extraneous space top and bottom, which should be apparent from the screencap above, but it’s not seriously distracting. Apart from that, the image is quite clean and pleasing to look at and doesn’t display any major faults. The original trailer is included along with a selection of galleries. All told, the package is a worthy one, and it should be mentioned that while the title is rumoured to be in the pipeline from Warners in the US the chances are it will find it’s home in the Archive. This movie has long been one of my favourite Lang pictures and I’m pleased to have it at last in a worthwhile edition. I’ve heard it said that the film suffers from too much focus on the so-called soapy elements of the story, but I disagree. The real strengths of the film are to be found in those newsroom and bar scenes – the character interaction is what drives everything forward and it would be a poorer piece of cinema without them. I have no problem recommending this one.

 

Saskatchewan

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Cinema is action, action, action, but it must always be in the same direction – Raoul Walsh.

That maxim from the veteran director could be applied to many of the movies he made, and Saskatchewan (1954) genuinely lives up to it from beginning to end. In a lot of respects this is a routine film with no special message to sell. However, as with most of Walsh’s work, it remains enjoyable for it’s total lack of pretension and the pacy shooting style.

The plot concerns O’Rourke (Alan Ladd), a Mountie with close connections to the Cree due to his being adopted by them as an orphan. This affinity for the natives is made clear right from the start when O’Rourke and his Cree half-brother, Cajou (Jay Silverheels) are seen hunting together. Their sport is interrupted though when they stumble upon the site of an ambush by Sioux fleeing north after routing Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn. There is only one survivor, an American woman called Grace (Shelley Winters), who escaped death by hiding herself at the onset of the attack. She proves reluctant to return to the fort at Saskatchewan with her rescuers, the reason being she’s wanted across the border in Montana for murder. With the threat of the Sioux forging an alliance with the Cree and fomenting trouble in Canada growing all the time, the Mounties are ordered to proceed south and link up their colleagues in an effort to drive the newcomers back to the US. That trek is beset with difficulties in the shape of constant Sioux harrying, a volatile and intolerant marshal bent on returning Grace to Montana, and a fresh off the boat commander with a firm grasp of regulations but woeful ignorance of the local conditions. As the possibility of the total annihilation of the command looms ever larger, O’Rourke has little choice but to stage a mutiny and try to get as many people as possible back to safety. All the while the Sioux and Cree are inching their way towards a pact that would surely guarantee war with the Canadians. There’s plenty of bad history in here, not least the fact that those Sioux who did run north had no intention of starting an uprising in Canada, but the sheer pace of the movie and the relentless action make it easy to ignore this and simply wallow in some of the stunning images on view.

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Raoul Walsh had a real talent for making watchable and entertaining films from thin, and sometimes pretty trite, material. He was always at his best when filming on location and staging actions set pieces, and Saskatchewan offered ample opportunity for indulging in both. The Canadian scenery provided a breathtaking backdrop and the director’s sure touch meant that events rattle along, peppered with well staged battle scenes. I always find it odd that Alan Ladd’s greatest and most iconic role also signalled his decline. His post-Shane roles were a mixed bag ranging from mundane to reasonably interesting, with Saskatchewan falling somewhere in the middle. The part of O’Rourke doesn’t call for him to dig especially deep or stretch himself, despite the fact that the opening set-up suggests that there will be some inner conflict to deal with. The pull of conflicting loyalties is explicit enough in the script, but there’s never any real sense of the turmoil this must necessarily evoke in O’Rourke. Ladd’s performance is by no means bad, it’s just not particularly involving. The only female of note in the movie is Shelley Winters as the fugitive O’Rourke grows increasingly attached to. I’ve never been a fan of Winters – even when she got to play fairly independent characters such as Grace there was still that slightly whiny and self-pitying quality about her that turns me right off. As the marshal determined to extradite Winters back to the US, Hugh O’Brian makes a satisfying villain. He’s clearly burdened by some dark secret, and is suitably mean when shooting Indians in the back and slugging Winters. For me, the most enjoyable role in the movie was the one handed to J Carrol Naish. His buckskin-clad Frenchman has a good line in quick fire wit and it’s hard not to smile at his self-confessed ambition to start his own tribe, already producing six children in the first six years of marriage to a Cree squaw. Naish was one of those unsung character actors who turned up in countless movies and rarely disappointed.

There are DVD releases of Saskatchewan in Germany, France (although this is almost sure to have burnt-in subs) and Australia. I have the German edition from Koch Media and the transfer is a very pleasing one. The film is presented 1.33:1 and is generally clean with colours that really pop. There are no forced subs on the English track and extras consist of the trailer, a gallery and a booklet (in German of course). I’d describe the film as entertaining without being anything special. Both acting and direction are competent and professional and it’s a lovely movie to look at. This is a lower tier western that sets out primarily to offer pacy and colourful diversion – taken as such it delivers successfully.

Yesterday’s Enemy

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The popular perception of British war films of the 1950s is that they all feature stoic types keeping a stiff upper lip and carrying themselves with unimpeachable honour whatever the provocation. Hammer films seem to have an equally stereotypical image; they are all exploitative gothic horrors shot using a vibrant and vivid palette. Well, Yesterday’s Enemy (1959) is a war movie produced by Hammer at its peak, and it stubbornly refuses to conform to any preconceived expectations. Instead, it casts a cold, bleak eye over a complex moral issue and asks questions for which there are no easy answers.

The story takes place in Burma in the early years of WWII when the outcome was still far from certain and everything hung in the balance. A small group of British soldiers, under the command of Captain Langford (Stanley Baker), are struggling through the steamy, oppressive jungle on the retreat and trying to get back to their own lines. Physically exhausted and burdened by the wounded men among their number, they stumble upon an isolated village where they hope to rest up before pressing on again. However, this village has been occupied by a detachment of Japanese and a firefight ensues before it is secured. In the aftermath of the fighting Langford makes a discovery that will have far reaching implications for both him and the men he leads. The small Japanese party had a full colonel with them, and he was carrying some clearly important documents. The only surviving member of the Japanese group is a Burmese informer and Langford is convinced he knows more than he’s saying. Feeling sure that the captured documents contain vital information about the enemy’s plans, Langford sets about breaking down the informer’s resistance. When all his threats prove unsuccessful Langford takes what will be a fateful decision. He orders the execution of two Burmese villagers in order to convince the informer that he means business. When his own people cry foul and protest that this is nothing short of a war crime, Langford makes the point that if one is to successfully fight a war then the gloves have to come off. Although the information is now in his possession, Langford finds his command menaced by Japanese reinforcements and unable to move out due to the mounting number of casualties. The situation is further complicated by the damage to the radio that means all communication with HQ is impossible. As if the apparent futility of Langford’s brutal action were not enough, the positions are swiftly reversed and he and his men find themselves facing an enemy who takes an equally pragmatic approach to fighting a war. Thus, two basic questions are raised. What exactly constitutes a war crime? And does the cause for which one fights justify the means employed? These are not simple issues, and the film offers no pat answers; in the end, we are left to reach our own conclusions.

The burden of command - Stanley Baker in Yesterday's Enemy.

Yesterday’s Enemy was envisaged as a film that would damp down some of the furore that had arisen in the wake of Hammer’s previous look at the war against the Japanese, The Camp on Blood Island. That movie was accused of tasteless sensationalism, and the studio therefore tried for an entirely different approach to the subject. Val Guest’s direction is a nice mix of toughness and sensitivity, but it never descends into mawkishness or sentimentality. We’re allowed to see and learn enough about characters to empathize with them but they are still ruthlessly killed off with the minimum of fuss – Gordon Jackson’s Scots sergeant is a good example of this. The action scenes have a brutal urgency and intensity that feels authentic, with violence erupting unexpectedly and ending just as abruptly. If one wanted to be picky it would be possible to complain about the studio bound setting, but I thought it was well designed and only the slightly hollow sounds occasionally drew attention to the fact that it wasn’t a real jungle. Anyway, this is not a movie that depends on strong location work; the plot is driven by character and psychology for the most part. The role of Captain Langford was an ideal one for Stanley Baker and gave him the opportunity to flex his acting muscles. He is no petty martinet but a hard headed realist who’s been handed a set of circumstances that no one could envy. He has to consider the welfare of his men, weigh this against the bigger picture of the campaign in general, and then make ethical choices that are both painful and unavoidable. He is no fanatical barbarian but an ordinary man – he has a wife and children back home – to whom fate has dealt a lousy hand. His Japanese counterpart, Philip Ahn, is almost a mirror image. This is not a stereotypical sadist devoid of conscience and contemptuous of foreigners – he’s a cultured man of the world, a former diplomat and student of English literature. All of this heightens the moral dilemma at the heart of the picture since neither man is a villain in the true sense of the word. The support cast is filled with familiar faces from British cinema and Guy Rolfe, Leo McKern and Richard Pascoe in particular make a strong impression. It’s also notable, and highly effective, that there’s no music whatsoever from beginning to end, the noises of the jungle providing the only soundtrack accompaniment.

Yesterday’s Enemy comes to DVD via Sony in the UK, and it’s been given a very fine anamorphic scope transfer. The image is clean and sharp with only very minor instances of damage. As for extras, the disc itself has a gallery and English HOH subs plus there’s an excellent 24 page booklet penned by Marcus Hearn that’s detailed and informative. The title was until recently exclusive to MovieMail in the UK, but it’s now gone on general release and this attractive disc can be picked up for a very reasonable price. I’d say this film should appeal to a broad range of viewers – those who like war movies, Hammer productions, and good intelligent drama alike. I was very favourably impressed and have no hesitation in recommending it wholeheartedly. If you think you’ve seen all that British war movies or Hammer have to offer then I suggest seeking this one out – you may be pleasantly surprised.

Lone Star

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Last time I found myself singing the praises of a movie that represents some of the best that westerns in the 1950s had to offer. Now I’m looking at another western, also from the 50s, but not at all in the same class. Lone Star (1952) is one of those pseudo-historical pieces that frequently end up skating on thin ice due to their vaguely pompous air. The problem with this one could be summed up in one word – politics. When a film sets out to glorify a political position, any political position, it almost always does so at the expense of pace and drama. Lone Star isn’t an especially long movie – about an hour and a half – but it just plods along.

The plot revolves around the question of whether Texas was to allow itself to be absorbed into the US or go it alone as an independent republic. Now this was a fairly complex issue, and one worthy of some research. However, by placing this at the centre of a western that badly wants to be an action picture a rare feat is accomplished: the facts are merely skimmed over, the characters are stripped of personality, the narrative drive is killed stone dead, and the viewer becomes apathetic. Dev Burke (Clark Gable) is a Texas cattleman with a patriotic background – it’s mentioned that he fought against Santa Anna – and the trust of prominent men. With the annexation of Texas hanging in the balance, Burke is handed the task of heading south to try to head off the challenge of those clamoring for a republic. The chief mover and shaker in the anti-annexation camp is Thomas Craden (Broderick Crawford), and he needs to be silenced if Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston are to achieve their goal. En route to Texas, Burke comes to the aid of Craden who’s running hard from a Comanche war party.

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There’s an exciting and well filmed sequence where the two men hold off the Comanche through brutal hand-to-hand combat. If only there were more of this then we’d be looking at a superior movie. But no, no sooner has the fight ended than we’re back to the turgid business of arguing the pros and cons of statehood. Burke hasn’t revealed his identity to Craden and thus finds himself welcomed into his inner circle. Everything would seem to be going according to plan for Burke, were it not for the fact that he meets Martha Ronda (Ava Gardner). She is Craden’s woman and a rabid opponent of annexation. Inevitably, both Burke and Martha are attracted to each other but the path of true love can never be smooth. It’s not unreasonable to expect some kind of triangle to emerge, and it does indeed happen. But the sticking point is not a question of conflicting emotional loyalties – no, it all comes down to appeasing one’s political allegiances! In the end, everything is resolved in a slam bang finish involving a well staged siege and assault. However, the final scene is a real cack-handed affair that runs contrary to all that’s gone before.

Vincent Sherman was a genuine journeyman director, a man capable of turning out a pretty good movie when the material was right. Unfortunately, Borden Chase’s script is a real dog and I’d be hard pushed to imagine anyone managing to rise above it. Still, there are a few good action scenes and the outdoor stuff looks quite good. The cast do what they can – and there’s no shortage of strong support from Lionel Barrymore, Moroni Olsen, William Conrad, Ed Begley and Beulah Bondi – but they’re ultimately hamstrung by the quality of material they have to work with. Gable plays the kind of honourable rogue that was his trademark and Gardner looks exceptionally good. The problem is the frankly ridiculous romance they are required to blunder through – the whole will-they-won’t-they thing stretches credibility to breaking point given the framework in which it’s set. Crawford’s not bad either, and he’s not an actor I’ve ever been especially fond of, but is also let down by the writing.

I’m pretty sure that the only DVD of Lone Star is the Warner/Impulso release in Spain. The image on the disc isn’t bad, but there are scratches and speckles throughout and I suspect it’s undergone some contrast boosting. There are no extras whatsoever and the Spanish subs are removable on the English track, regardless of what the menu appears to claim. To be honest, this is not a good film and it’s not representative of 1950s westerns. What it does have going for it is the star power of Gable and Gardner and a handful of action set pieces. In all good faith, I couldn’t recommend this to any but the most diehard Gable or Gardner completists.

Last Train from Gun Hill

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I love the complexity of westerns from the 1950s. Moreover, I love the fact that this complexity could be contained within the framework of relatively simple and compact stories and still lose nothing in the telling. Take Last Train from Gun Hill (1959): on the face of it we have a fairly standard pursuit and revenge tale, yet it successfully tackles the themes of racism, loyalty (both to friends and to family), justice and the father/son dynamic. Not only that, but it wraps the whole thing up in a run time of an hour and a half or thereabouts. The result is tight, intense moviemaking that draws you in from the very first shot and only relinquishes its grip when the final credits roll.

Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas) is a US Marshal with a Cherokee bride and a young son. Within minutes of the opening Morgan’s wife has been assaulted, raped and murdered by two young thugs. This is a brutal and shocking way to begin any story, and despite the camera mercifully cutting away none of its power is diminished. The point is further hammered home when Morgan arrives to survey the terrible aftermath, horror, sorrow and outrage all flitting across his features. Morgan’s grief is compounded by his realisation that a saddle left behind at the scene of the crime points the finger of guilt at an old friend and comrade Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn). Morgan doesn’t for one moment believe that Belden himself could have been directly involved in this heinous act, but the presence of the saddle means some member of his entourage must have been. The sting in the tail comes from the fact that the chief culprit is Belden’s son and heir Rick (Earl Holliman), a spoilt and inadequate young man living hopelessly in his father’s shadow. The perverse and damaging nature of this father/son relationship is eloquently summed up in a short scene at Belden’s ranch house. When the foreman ribs the boy about the reason for a cut on his face Belden goads him into fighting for the honour of the family name – Rick is soundly beaten, causing humiliation to him and disappointment to his father. When Morgan learns the truth the scene is set for a confrontation between the two old friends. The bonds between the two men are strong but the events that have taken place put an intolerable strain on them. Morgan is determined to take Rick back to stand trial while Belden is equally determined to stop him. As Morgan and his prisoner wait in a cramped hotel room for the arrival of the last train, Belden and his men lay siege outside. There’s more than a passing resemblance to Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma at this point, although Rick lacks the charm of Ben Wade and Morgan’s personal loss lends him more inflexibility than Dan Evans. As the clock ticks inexorably towards the arrival of that last train the pressure mounts on Morgan, and the issue is raised of whether he too might have to face the same situation as Belden somewhere down the line – for Morgan (like his former friend) is now a widower faced with the unenviable task of trying to raise a boy alone.

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John Sturges always knew how to shoot an action scene and there can be no complaints on that score here. However, this movie isn’t a string of back to back shoot-em-up set pieces, and it’s sometimes forgotten how good Sturges was at coaxing strong performances from his cast. Both Douglas and Quinn give convincing portraits of men unaccustomed to ceding ground to anyone and torn between conflicting loyalties. The few scenes where they actually share the screen are a pleasure to watch – the initial meeting at the ranch when both men realize who really killed Morgan’s wife, and what the consequences must inevitably be, contains some marvellous work with an enormous amount of feeling conveyed simply through subtle glances. As good as Quinn is, Douglas steals the show with his grim determination and suppressed fury boiling just below the surface. He’s playing a man for whom respect for the law and the badge he carries is paramount, even to the extent that his own personal grief is subordinated to duty. There are only two occasions when his professionalism is allowed to slip momentarily, both triggered by racial slurs directed at his murdered wife. The first is a reflexive burst of physical violence against a local loudmouth. The second, however, is merely vocal but has a sadistic quality that is quite chilling – his deliberate and detailed description to a shackled and cowed Rick of how the judicial process that will lead to his certain death will be as slow and protracted as any Indian execution is the only time he permits himself to savour the taste of revenge.

Earl Holliman played Rick as a whining, craven creature who never elicits the least sympathy from the viewer. This seems to be largely down to the writing, and if any particular criticism is to be made of the film it’s that Rick’s character is just too unlikeable. If there had been something even vaguely attractive about him it would have added yet another layer to the story, but that’s really just nitpicking on my part. Carolyn Jones has the only female role in the movie (not counting the extremely brief appearance by Morgan’s wife) as the on/off lover of Belden. Aside from providing a counter to all the machismo on display, she occupies (for most of the film at least) a place similar to that of the viewer i.e. watching from the sidelines while feeling some sympathy for both the protagonists. In the end, it’s her respect for Morgan and his motivation, and her disillusionment with Belden and his son’s brutality, that leads to the decisive shift in the balance of power.

The R1 DVD from Paramount has Last Train from Gun Hill looking just great. The vistavision elements have been transferred beautifully at 1.78:1 anamorphic, with colours looking rich and saturated. I can’t say I noticed any damage or flaws worth mentioning and the image is sharp and detailed. There are no extras whatsoever on the disc, and that’s a pity as this is a movie that would seem to be just begging for an intelligent commentary track. This is a movie – like many by Sturges in fact – that knows how to keep the tension simmering and the viewer hooked. There’s no preaching or tiresome moralising yet the messages are all communicated clearly and seamlessly without impeding the narrative or the entertainment. In short, it’s a high class film.

 

The Sleeping Tiger

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Would you consider taking a known criminal into your home as an experiment? That’s the basic premise of The Sleeping Tiger (1954), and it’s one that promises ample opportunity for drama and tension. Unfortunately, the unlikely nature of such a story leaves the material ripe for a descent into some highly strung melodramatics. Of course this is a movie, and what matters most is internal logic – the situation in which the characters find themselves doesn’t necessarily have to be one the viewers would choose for themselves so long as those characters behave appropriately within the given framework. In this movie, that is pretty much the case yet the result remains only partially successful.

Frank Clemmons (Dirk Bogarde) is a young hood with a troubled past. When he attempts a late night hold up on a deserted street he finds himself abruptly overpowered, disarmed and, to all intents and purposes, a prisoner. The intended victim was Clive Esmond (Alexander Knox), a psychiatrist with a penchant for experimentation. Instead of handing his would-be mugger over to the authorities, Esmond wants to see if he can put his theories into practice and rehabilitate the young delinquent. To this end he makes a deal with Clemmons: he will stay in Esmond’s suburban home, ostensibly as a guest, while the doctor attempts to dig into the past and exorcise the demons. So far so good, and maybe very laudable too. But there’s inevitably a fly in the ointment – the woman. Glenda (Alexis Smith) is Esmond’s young American wife, leading a life of leisure but starting to feel just a little bored. Though initially hostile to Clemmons, it’s only a matter of time before she allows herself to be seduced by his dangerous charm. While Esmond is  becoming an unwitting cuckold, he is also gradually making progress with getting to the heart of Clemmons’ problems. A rash hold up by Clemmons, and an equally rash show of solidarity on Esmond’s part, leads to the breakthrough. Clemmons is free of the chains of guilt and Esmond has achieved a major professional success. But this is only part of the story, and the adulterous triangle that has sprung up will have to be resolved in a dramatic and violent fashion.

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The Sleeping Tiger was Joseph Losey’s first British film after fleeing Hollywood and the HUAC controversy. He directed the film under a pseudonym (as did writers Carl Foreman and Harold Buchman) for fear his notoriety should rub off on any others in the cast and crew. His direction is competent without being in any way flash, and the film seems to be trying very hard to be a true noir. Indeed, there are many noirish elements, but the setting and characters are an obstacle. The whole thing remains resolutely British in a way that, while not damaging in itself, just isn’t noir. Dirk Bogarde gives a good enough performance as Clemmons but, and this is a big but, he simply doesn’t convince as a hardened hoodlum. His part was so written to allow him to come from a middle-class background and help account for his sophistication. Still, it doesn’t really work and, despite his ability to play villains and cads, Bogarde is never credible as a gun-wielding street thug. In the role of Esmond, Alexander Knox is fine and draws a good deal of sympathy. The only real issue I had was the fact that there’s no explanation offered as to why this man would so obsessively (and he does go to extraordinary lengths) endanger himself and his household for the sake of curing one patient. Alexis Smith was at the end of her big screen career at this point (she was moving into television work) but she turns in an excellent performance as the neglected wife who’s the real sleeping tiger. She gets to indulge in some scenery chewing melodramatics towards the end, and does so very effectively.

As far as I know, The Sleeping Tiger is only available in poor PD editions in the US. However, there are a couple of ways to get hold of it in the UK. Optimum have released the film in two box sets, one dedicated to Joseph Losey and one to Dirk Bogarde. I watched it from the Bogarde Screen Icons set, and the transfer is fine, clear and sharp with only a few minor scratches on view. The disc itself is a totally barebones affair and no subs are provided. The film offers an interesting if unlikely mix – The Dark Past being another variation on this theme – of psychoanalysis and crime that has its moments. The melodrama is laid on a little thick at times and the casting of Bogarde is somewhat problematic. Despite this, it remains watchable and marks the first collaboration of Losey and Bogarde, who would go on to make more accomplished films together.