Red Sundown


Low budget westerns seem to occupy a place on the filmography of just about every Hollywood star at one time or another. For some actors, the relationship with the genre was little more than a flirtation, something they dipped in and out of without leaving any real or lasting impression. On the other hand, there were others who discovered their niche in such movies. Rory Calhoun belongs in that category; sure he made other types of movie, but it’s with the western, and the programmers in particular, that his name tends to be most often associated. Red Sundown (1956), directed by Jack Arnold, offered him a pretty good role in a standard tale of a man trying to reform and make a fresh start.

Alec Longmire (Calhoun) is a man with a violent past, a drifter with no particular plans. However, his aimless existence is about to take a sharp turn, precipitated by his stumbling upon a lone figure in the wilderness. Bud Purvis (James Millican) is another wandering gunslinger, running from the law and on his last legs. He’s already walked the same path Longmire is currently taking, and all he has to show for it is regret. An altercation with a group of roughnecks in the saloon of some nameless backwater leads to the two men riding out of town in a hurry, with company not far behind. By nightfall they’re under siege in an abandoned shack with no way out. Gutshot and dying, with their shelter already on fire, Purvis comes up with a unique plan that will allow one of them to escape. But he has one condition; the doomed gunman has the younger man give his word that he’ll hang up his weapons if he should make it out alive. Well, Longmire’s not the kind to break a promise, least of all one given to a dying man, and so determines to leave his past behind him. However, reputations have a way of catching up with people and, besides that, wiping the slate clean generally demands more than a sense of remorse and good intentions. And so Longmire, somewhat reluctantly, finds himself sworn in as deputy to Sheriff Murphy (Dean Jagger) in the town of Durango. Murphy’s not getting any younger, and badly needs some backup as he’s caught right slap in the middle of an escalating range war. On one side is big time rancher Henshaw (Robert Middleton), while on the other is a collection of squatters and homesteaders. The greatest threat posed to Longmire and Murphy is the arrival on the scene of Chet Swann (Grant Williams), a reckless killer hired by Henshaw. Longmire has to tread a fine line, maintaining the objectivity of the law while an unwanted showdown with the dangerous Swann looms ever closer.

Red Sundown was Jack Arnold’s second western and showed a lot of promise. That’s not to say it’s above criticism though. Restricted budgets generally meant short running times and pacy storytelling, and that’s more or less the case with this movie. I say more or less because the film fairly springs out of the gate and grabs the attention, tends to coast along in the middle, and then puts in a strong sprint finish. The opening benefits from a bit of added exterior shooting and a great turn from James Millican – this was to be his last film and he looks quite ill at times. The siege of the abandoned hut where he and Calhoun hole up looks good, has a sense of real tension, and a pay off that’s sad and uplifting at the same time. The slightly problematic mid-section, in contrast, suffers from too much interior work and a romantic angle with Martha Hyer  that never sparks or truly convinces. In short, this passage has too much talk, not enough action and relatively flat visuals. Having said all that, the character of Swann is introduced in a way that highlights his creepy ruthlessness, and his presence does create a bit of much needed tension. The ending, while a touch abrupt, sees the pace pick up for the climactic duel and allows for a little more inventiveness as far as the camerawork is concerned.

Rory Calhoun gives what I’d term a comfortable, easy performance as the former bad man trying to cut his ties with a violent past and turn over a new leaf. This is far from an unfamiliar theme within westerns, and I think it’s fair to say that Calhoun doesn’t bring anything new or startling to the table. However, he’s never less than believable in the role and has enough natural charm to carry the lead. I think there’s a bit of a misconception that playing a tough western character doesn’t require a lot of effort. The thing is, pushing the boat out too far means you end up with a caricature, while reining it in too much results in a limp character lacking in credibility. Personally, I feel Calhoun strikes the right balance; the whole look, posture and attitude he adopts never leaves the viewer in any doubt that he’s capable of handling himself in a tight situation, yet he never tips over into comic book antics.

In contrast, Grant Williams, as the hired killer Swann, doesn’t quite hit the mark. His first appearance, all smiles and mock geniality, really taps into a sinister, chilling quality that bodes well. However, he fails to maintain this, and the scene where he confronts Calhoun in his room doesn’t work at all. It’s something almost indefinable, but the way Williams delivers his lines is all wrong – there’s no threat behind them, none of the menace that’s desperately needed. I already referred to the unsatisfactory romance between Calhoun’s character and Martha Hyer’s, but I’ll bring it up here again simply because it highlights what I feel was a missed opportunity. There was the possibility of adding an intriguing triangle to the mix with the introduction of Lita Baron as Henshaw’s housekeeper, and Calhoun’s old flame, but it’s never truly exploited. The actress was married to Calhoun at the time and there is a chemistry at work whenever the pair share the screen. When you consider the fact that Lita Baron eventually sued for divorce and cited her husband’s having committed adultery with seventy-nine different women (yes, that’s right 79) as the grounds, it’s clear this must have been a turbulent relationship. If there are some weaknesses in a few of the performances, it’s just about balanced out by solid playing from two old pros, Dean Jagger and Robert Middleton – the latter even gets to slug it out in a fine saloon punch-up with Calhoun.

Red Sundown has always been one of the more difficult Jack Arnold westerns to get hold of, previously only being available in a pricey box set from Koch in Germany (more so if, like myself, you already had the other titles) or a French release afflicted with the dreaded forced subtitles. However, Llamentol in Spain have recently put out a nice-looking edition on DVD that’s competitively priced. The film is presented in the correct 2:1 ratio and is anamorphic. The image is generally pleasing, with strong colour and a clean print. As usual, there’s no problem with subtitles – they can be disabled via the setup menu. The disc boasts no extra features, but I’m just glad to have a decent looking copy for a reasonable price. The movie is a solid programmer, and never aspires to anything loftier. I won’t claim the film is some lost classic or anything, but what I will say is that it does provide 80 minutes of attractive entertainment.



I Wake Up Screaming

“I’ll follow you into your grave. I’ll write my name on your tombstone.”

It’s hard to pin down exactly when film noir came into being, almost as hard as defining the term itself. Some argue that Stranger on the Third Floor kicked it all off, others point to John Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon, and there are those who reckon it was even a year or two after that. So where does that leave I Wake Up Screaming (1941)? Well it came out around the time of The Maltese Falcon, so it falls into that early/proto-noir grouping. Unlike Huston’s film, there is a degree of unevenness to the tone; it veers between some broadly farcical moments and a darker, shadowy world of danger and complex psychology. In fairness though, the latter aspect does dominate and, even if one concedes that it’s not fully fledged noir, there is some wonderful photography and imagery on show.

The opening is a dramatic one, with a newspaper seller announcing the murder of Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) as the camera invites us into police headquarters. Inside, over the course of two interrogation sessions, we learn who this girl was and how she came to meet her end. Both Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature), a promoter, and Jill Lynn (Betty Grable), the victim’s sister, are under the spotlight and – via flashback –  filling in the background for the audience. It’s shown how Frankie and two friends (Alan Mowbray & Allyn Joslyn) make a Pygmalion style bet to turn waitress Vicky into a celebrity. Seeing as they have quality material to work with, things turn out fine. Maybe too fine though, since all three men have romantic designs on their muse, while she has plans to move to Hollywood. Anyway, Vicky winds up murdered and Frankie is sweating it out in the interrogation cell as suspect number one. The investigation is being headed up by an unusual cop, the soft-spoken and slow-moving Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar). Cornell seems sure Frankie’s the killer and is determined to break him. This immense and vaguely sinister figure becomes Frankie’s shadow, teasing and menacing him. On one memorable occasion, Frankie wakes suddenly from a bad dream only to find the Buddha-like figure of Cornell sitting in a chair in his room, just watching him. As Jill and Frankie join forces to trace Vicky’s killer, they draw closer together and it also starts to become apparent that the motives behind Cornell’s obsessive determination to nail his prey may not be quite as clear cut as they first seem.

I Wake Up Screaming, adapted from Steve Fisher’s novel, is as much a whodunit as a film noir. It’s the behaviour of a couple of the characters and the chiaroscuro lighting and imagery that earn it a place in the noir lineup. I mentioned the uneven tone, and that’s perhaps most evident in the opening segment, where the action alternates between the interrogations and the flashbacks. The latter tend to be bright and have a light, jokey feel about them as the three friends go about making Vicky over. This is where the transitional nature of the film is noticeable, as those scenes are reminiscent of the screwball style of the 30s. It also reflects something of the director’s background. H Bruce Humberstone is maybe best remembered for his handling of a few of the best Charlie Chan movies, and those flashback scenes recall that kind of mood. Cameraman Edward Cronjager had worked with Fritz Lang, and would do so again, and it’s tempting to wonder if this association may have had some influence over the look of the interrogation scenes. These are pure noir, full of harsh key lights, deep shadows and threatening, disorienting camera angles. In fact, this style dominates the remainder of the film and results in some strong visual imagery. I don’t often spend a lot of time discussing the musical scores in these pieces, but I’ll do so here as I feel there’s some added significance in this case. The movie’s main theme is Alfred Newman’s Street Scene, which would become something of a staple in Fox crime pictures. However, another very famous melody, Over the Rainbow, also features prominently throughout the film, and it’s that I particularly want to focus on. Initially, this might seem an odd choice for a noir/crime movie, being so closely associated with The Wizard of Oz. Nevertheless, it not only works but is also highly appropriate – that half-hopeful, half-melancholic song perfectly captures the nature of two important characters, both striving and straining to reach something that must forever remain unattainable.

In retrospect, there’s something incredibly sad about I Wake Up Screaming, and it’s not just the fate of some of the characters. Within a few short years, both Carole Landis and Laird Cregar would be dead. Landis would die by her own hand, and Cregar would bring on a fatal heart attack as a result of extreme dieting. Landis was pretty good in the role of the victim, seen only in flashback and in a clip of film her character made as a screen test. Although her screen time is limited, she still conveyed the ambition and single-mindedness of the character well enough. Cregar is phenomenally good, the best thing about the whole picture in my opinion. Despite the fact he may not have thought so himself, his bulk was one of his greatest assets as a performer. He dominates the frame whenever he appears, and his mock joviality comes across as nothing more than a veneer to cover up something much more sinister below. But there’s more than that, something about the eyes or voice had a soulful quality, a hint of regret maybe. By the end of the movie, Cornell (apparently Steve Fisher named the character after fellow writer Cornell Woolrich) develops into an extremely poignant figure. I always thought Cregar was great in anything I’ve seen him in, and his passing away at such an early age was a real tragedy. There’s also a small but pivotal role for cinema’s favourite runt, Elisha Cook Jr; the man was born to play losers and victims, and his plaintive, bewildered persona is put to good effect in this film. Which brings me to the two leads, Betty Grable and Victor Mature. Grable was essentially a musical star, not the kind of person you expect to see in a hard-boiled crime movie. Having said that, she does fine as the sister of the victim and is quite credible in a serious dramatic role – there was a short musical number shot for inclusion but this was, quite sensibly, cut and is presented as one of the extras on the DVD. If I have any quibbles about her it’s only that her relationship with Mature seems to grow too quickly to be realistic – still, that’s a scripting rather than an acting issue. Victor Mature featured in a fair number of noirs, and I have no problems with his work on this one. However, it has to be said, and again this really relates to the writing, that both Mature and Grable’s characters are a little too straight and square. Noir always works best when there’s a touch of ambiguity or doubt surrounding the protagonists, and that’s never convincingly achieved with either of these characters.

I Wake Up Screaming is on DVD from Fox in the US as part of their noir line, and looks great. The transfer is very clean and sharp, and the contrast is strong. The disc also offers a fair selection of extras, the commentary track by Eddie Muller and the aforementioned deleted scene being the most notable. As I’ve tried to make clear throughout, the film is not full-blown noir. Cinematic genres and styles are all about evolution, things don’t arrive fully formed out of the blue. As the world, and the US in particular, plunged further into crisis and war,  cinema would gradually reflect the darkness and disillusionment more. Even if films like I Wake Up Screaming don’t quite go the full distance, they’re still not too far off. Either way, it remains a classy movie that is recommended viewing.

Apache Drums


Filmmakers assigned to B movie projects always faced an uphill struggle at the outset: inflexible and restrictive shooting schedules, budgets pared right down to the bone, and scripts that, as often as not, lacked any spark of originality. Still and all, there were a select few who seemed to thrive under such circumstances, who had the vision or the maybe even the guts to shape something worthwhile out of the modest resources before them. Fans of classic horror are familiar with, and hold in high regard, the name of Val Lewton. This was the man whose specialist unit at RKO managed to produce a series of classy, polished little nightmares that not only transcended their frugal budgets but actually succeeded because there was so little money available. Apache Drums (1951), made at Universal, was Lewton’s last feature as producer before his untimely death from a heart attack. The film is the only western he was involved in, and it’s such an effective and atmospheric little picture that I can’t help but wonder how he might have fared within the genre had his life not ended so prematurely.

The story is derived from Harry Brown’s Stand at Spanish Boot, and it tells a fairly standard tale. Sam Leeds (Stephen McNally) is a gambler, a seemingly incorrigible ne’er-do-well (he’s even earned himself the unwelcome nickname “Slick”) who quite literally opens proceedings with a bang, shooting dead a rival card player in the stark saloon in the town of Spanish Boot. I found it a particularly nice touch that the shooting takes place off-screen as it immediately lends a sense of ambiguity to Sam’s character. He says it was self-defense and no-one seriously doubts that, still the seeds of suspicion are planted in our minds right from the off. The shooting comes at a bad time from Sam’s perspective: the mayor/blacksmith Joe Madden (Willard Parker) has been talked into a kind of moral crusade by the Welsh (the nationality has some significance later in the movie) parson Griffin (Arthur Shields) and Sam is given his marching orders. The fact that Madden is Sam’s rival for the affections of local girl Sally (Coleen Gray) rubs further salt into his wounds but he has no alternative. The dance hall girls have just been sent packing, and Sam is the next undesirable to be ejected. Thus we have the classic western staple of the outcast, shunned by the decent folk and driven out beyond the bounds of civilization. However, Sam’s exile is a short-lived one; he soon caches up with the wagon of girls, or rather their massacred remains. With his dying breath, the freshly scalped piano player who had been accompanying the spurned ladies tells of a formidable Apache raiding party appearing ghostlike and descending upon them. Sam gives his word to hightail it back to Spanish Boot and warn the solid citizens of the impending attack. The thing is he’s neither welcome nor trusted in his former home, the residents, with the tacit support of Madden, being on the point of riding him out of town on a rail before the arrival of a shot-up stagecoach bears out his words. It’s at this stage that the tension starts to build, as the Apache threat draws ever closer. Eventually, the net closes in to the point where all the survivors are holed up and under siege in the old church. Here, in the latter half of the movie, the camera never leaves the interior of the building and so heightens the feeling of helplessness and suspense, as the drums pound throughout the night and the defenders wait and watch for the Apache to leap howling through the high windows.


In writing about a lot of 50s westerns, one word crops up again and again – redemption. There’s no getting away from it; it quite literally pervades the genre throughout the decade, with even relatively humble and unpretentious efforts like Apache Drums having the concept at their core. All of the three main characters – Sam Leeds, Griffin and Madden – redeem themselves before the final fade out. Madden initially comes across as a vaguely priggish figure, allowing his preconceptions of Sam to colour his judgement and using his authority as means of furthering his own personal desires. But through enforced confinement with the man he regards as his opponent, he’s able to rise above his own inherent pettiness to attain a kind of nobility by the end. Griffin is a moral and religious absolutist, quick to judge and condemn all those who he considers to have strayed from the path of righteousness. Again, the circumstances he’s forced into lead to a reassessment of his former stance. There’s a marvelous little moment during the siege, where the preacher who had previously spoken in the most derogatory and disparaging terms about the Apache scout in their midst, Pedro-Peter (Armando Silvestre), moves across to kneel beside him. With the shadows of death creeping ever nearer, these two men pray to their respective deities side by side. And finally there’s Sam Leeds. He starts out expressing nothing but casual contempt for all those poor saps who slave away trying to earn an honest living and build a community. He’s of the opinion that he’s too smart for all that guff, that his only concern is his own welfare and comfort. Yet, he too (perhaps more than the others) finds that the threat from without carries a lesson for him. By putting aside his selfishness and obsession with self-preservation, he grows visibly as a human being. In their roles, Parker, Shields and McNally all manage to create rounded characters that are believable due to their respective weaknesses and prejudices. When you’re dealing with a low budget production such as this, good characterization, and the performers capable of achieving it, is a huge plus.

While the acting is important if you’re counting the pennies, it’s all likely to come to nothing if the technical expertise isn’t present behind the cameras. As I said in the introduction, producer Val Lewton was a past master at wringing the maximum out of limited resources. His RKO chillers all had a very distinctive look and feel, regarding shadow, darkness and the unseen and unknown as assets rather than obstacles. Such is the case with Apache Drums. Some of the most effective sequences follow on from events that the audience never get to see: both Sam’s deadly gunplay and the massacre of the saloon girls happen off-screen and the viewer only gets to witness the consequences of these events. The final section of the movie, which leaves the audience with no choice other than to view the action from the perspective of the terrified townsfolk means that we share in their sense of helplessness and dread. Of course Lewton was either clever or fortunate enough to work with talented directors on his projects. Between them the producer and director Hugo Fregonese work wonders in this section of the film: the image of garishly painted warriors springing through the high windows, backlit by the flames of the burning town, is like a vision out of hell, and retains a powerful shock value. I made brief mention earlier of the fact that Arthur Shields played a Welsh preacher. The reason for my drawing attention to his character’s nationality relates to a passage which takes place during the climactic siege. As the incessant beating of the war drums outside the walls begins to take its psychological toll on those inside, the decision is made to do something in an attempt to boost morale. Shields, playing a Welshman, leads the defenders in a chorus of Men of Harlech. In itself it’s a nice moment, but it’s also significant in that the scene would be mirrored in Cy Endfield’s Zulu over a decade later.


Apache Drums is a film that seemed quite difficult to see for many years. I caught a television broadcast back when I was a teenager and it stuck in my mind, probably because of the imagery as much as anything. At the moment, there are three DVD editions available: from France, Spain and Germany. From various comments I’ve seen, I get the impression they are all derived from the same source, though the French release will have forced subtitles. I have the Spanish DVD from Llamentol, which presents the film in the correct Academy ratio, and boasts a fine overall transfer – it’s sharp, colourful and well-defined. Subtitles are not an issue and can be turned off on the setup menu. The disc also offers the original theatrical trailer for the film, but that’s it in terms of extra features. I really like the film; it’s pacy, well structured and exciting. Aside from that, it looks good, with the kind of visual flair that’s typical of a Lewton production. A low budget sleeper that I happily recommend.



The Last Hunt

Westerns, especially the classics of the 50s, tackled just about every theme imaginable, often passing comment on universal concerns that transcend the genre itself. That of course is one of the western’s great strengths, it’s ability to resonate widely. However, the genre has also dealt with what might be termed more direct concerns too, actions and events that impacted  on the shaping of the frontier and the course of US history. Bearing in mind that the old west was essentially a wilderness, it’s no surprise that animals occupied such an important place in the minds of those who lived there. There are countless examples on film highlighting the importance to the native people and settlers alike of the horse. How many times have we witnessed the contempt and hatred directed towards horse thieves? In a primal landscape covering vast distances, the theft of a man’s sole means of transport was naturally one of the foulest crimes. However, the horse wasn’t the only animal which played a significant role in the development of the frontier. The buffalo, that great beast which sustained and dominated the lives of the plains Indians, was every bit as vital in its own way. As such, it’s perhaps surprising that The Last Hunt (1956) is one of the few westerns that concentrates on the fate of those creatures which once roamed in huge numbers across the continent.

The Last Hunt is the story of two quite different men, Sandy McKenzie (Stewart Granger) and Charlie Gilson (Robert Taylor), who enter into an uneasy partnership. Sandy is a famed buffalo hunter, but he’s also a man sickened by killing and has abandoned his old profession to turn his attention to the cattle business. However, fate has other ideas and, when a buffalo stampede wipes out his herd, a chance meeting with war veteran Charlie leads him reluctantly back to hunting. While Sandy has seen more than enough bloodshed, Charlie has something approaching an obsession with death. Charlie’s wartime experiences have clearly left a mark, and he seems to live to kill. The contrasting approaches of the two  men is highlighted during one of the hunt scenes. Having established a stand, the camera switches between this pair as they go about the slow, methodical business of picking off the buffalo herd. Charlie’s features are fixed in a mask of sadistic delight as one animal after another drops and breathes its last. Conversely, Sandy is stricken by conscience and is on the verge of breaking down and weeping at the thought of the devastation he’s participating in. If the radically different perspectives of the partners weren’t a great enough source of conflict, their rivalry is further complicated when Charlie captures a young Indian girl (Debra Paget) and takes her as his woman. Along with his wide sadistic streak, Charlie is also an unashamed racist with a deep suspicion and hatred of the Indian. He considers the girl to be his personal property, one of the spoils of war if you like, to be used or abused as he pleases. Not only does Sandy regard this kind of boorishness as an affront  to his sense of morality and civilized behaviour, but he also finds himself developing feelings for the girl himself. Charlie’s mounting paranoia and Sandy’s growing self-disgust, fueled both by their slaughter of the buffalo and the presence of the girl in their midst, see the tensions rise inexorably. Sooner or later, these two will have to face off and settle their scores, and the climax of the movie is a memorably chilling one in every sense as the final confrontation takes place during a freezing blizzard.

Richard Brooks started out as a writer, scripting films such as Brute Force, Crossfire and Key Largo before moving into directing with the Cary Grant suspenser Crisis in 1950. He didn’t work much within the western genre, making only Bite the Bullet, The Professionals and The Last Hunt. As a writer, he tended to tackle complex and controversial subjects and his first western as director (with a script credit too) saw him continue in a similar vein. The Last Hunt works in the theme of racism alongside its ecological message; the systematic elimination of the buffalo was essentially a government sponsored programme once the realization set in that the army wasn’t going to defeat the Indians through conventional military tactics. The buffalo had a special place within Indian culture, providing not only a source of food but also many of the essentials of life. The Indians used almost every part of the animals to make clothing, shelter, and tools. Therefore, it’s impossible to overestimate the status of these creatures as far as the native people were concerned. Brooks highlights the mysticism involved when he features a white buffalo, a sacred figure. This device also serves to draw attention again to the differences between Charlie and Sandy: Sandy is entranced by the sight of such a rarity, while Charlie sees only profit and immediately slays it. Although this is, superficially at least, a fairly simple tale, there’s a lot going on and Brooks blends it all together very successfully, ensuring that a brisk pace is maintained without sacrificing any of the necessary character development.

Robert Taylor is an actor whose work I’ve featured regularly on this site and The Last Hunt offered him one of his very best roles, maybe even the best. Generally, he played heroic figures but this film saw him take on the persona of an irredeemable rogue. I’ve read comments in the past which indicated Taylor had  doubts about his own abilities as a performer, but roles such as Charlie Gilson prove that there was no basis for such harsh self-criticism. I always feel the best and most effective movie villains have the knack of drawing a degree of sympathy or pity from the viewer, and that’s the case with Taylor’s portrayal here. There’s no question that Charlie is a bad lot, but Taylor brought a certain fragility to the part and that adds an interesting variation to what could have been a bland and routine character.

Stewart Granger might seem an odd choice for a western hero but here, in his second genre picture, he’s both comfortable and convincing. Apparently, Granger took to the whole western experience off-screen too and was well thought of by the crew. He’s very effective as the conscience-stricken counterbalance to Taylor’s killing machine and the two actors play well off each other. The Last Hunt is another of those movies with a small central cast; they’re usually quite successful at rounding out the characters and offering some more depth. In this case, the two protagonists benefit more from the increased focus though. Debra Paget as the captive Indian girl is never named and remains a slightly colourless presence throughout, albeit a strikingly attractive one. After appearing in Broken Arrow, this was Paget’s third outing as an Indian maiden and it must have looked like she was going to be permanently typecast at this point. Whatever you say about Paget, I don’t think anyone could mistake Russ Tamblyn for a native American. Nevertheless, he was cast as the half-breed hired by Sandy and Charlie, and his sympathetic presence is used to emphasize the blind bigotry of the latter and the relative enlightenment of the former. Best of all among the supporting players though is Lloyd Nolan, another initially questionable choice for a western. Nolan had a very  urban air about him and I tend to think of quick talking cops and the character of Michael Shayne whenever I see him. Still, he really embraced the part of the one-legged buffalo skinner and turned in a very  memorable performance.

For a long time The Last Hunt was only available on DVD in Europe. However, the film has recently made its US debut via the Warner Archive. I can’t comment on the quality of that particular transfer though as I don’t own a copy. I have the French release by WB, which looks reasonable although the scope image is letterboxed and non-anamorphic. In common with the majority of Warner titles released in Europe, it’s a bare bones affair with optional subtitles that can be deselected on the setup menu. The movie itself is a real keeper, a bit of a neglected gem that looks good, has fine performances, and makes a number of interesting points about man’s impact on the environment and race relations. The wider availability of this title on DVD may hopefully raise the profile of a film that’s well deserving of some renewed attention.


Hate can be a very exciting emotion. Very exciting. Haven’t you noticed that?

I guess one of the defining characteristics of film noir is its subversive nature. It tends to take traditional scenarios and situations and casts its dark and cynical shadows over them, carrying the audience along on a journey into a murky and unfamiliar world. This subversion can apply to the legal system, social matters, or affairs of the heart. Gilda (1946) concentrates on the latter category, spinning its tale of three people locked into a romantic triangle, unable to decide if they love or hate each other and apparently unaware of the distinction between these powerful and conflicting emotions.

The story begins in Argentina at some unspecified point towards the end of WWII. But there’s a timeless, otherworldly quality to it all – the end of the war and the ensuing celebrations are mentioned in a throwaway fashion that’s surely meant to emphasize the detachment of the lead characters from the real world and the more mundane concerns of most people. These people seem to exist and operate within their own self-contained universe, a glamorous yet nightmarish demi-monde, where the bigger picture of world-changing events are relevant only as a kind of Hitchcockian MacGuffin. The opening shot of the movie introduces Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), a down on his luck grifter rolling dice on the waterfront and looking for easy marks. His strategy is a high risk one, not just because he’s a gambler but because his loaded dice are sure to attract the attention of disgruntled suckers sooner or later. When the inevitable happens, and Johnny finds himself the victim of a shakedown on a dark and forbidding wharf, his hide is saved by the intervention of a suave gentleman with a handy sword stick. This is Ballin Mundson (George Macready), a casino owner with an interest in shadier and even more profitable ventures. Johnny is nothing if not an opportunist and soon talks himself into employment, and a position of trust, with Ballin. For a time this mutually beneficial arrangement works and everything is sailing along smoothly on calm waters, until a woman appears and brews up a storm. Gilda (Rita Hayworth) is a sexual powerhouse, a woman whose passionate nature and provocative insolence seems to radiate from within. Her sudden and dramatic appearance as Ballin’s wife, after a whirlwind courtship, throws Johnny for a loop and irreversibly alters the dynamic of the relationship between the two men. Gilda’s arrival on the scene has an immediate and profound effect on Johnny – their introduction is a charged affair, and the confusion that Johnny’s barely able to disguise is shared by the audience. The rippling undercurrent of hostility gives rise to all sorts of questions about these people. I’m not giving away much here when I point out that it’s soon revealed that Gilda and Johnny were once lovers, before he walked out on her. And there we have our triangle: a cagey, duplicitous affair where the three protagonists circle each other warily and seem bent on mutual destruction. While it all develops nicely, I’ve always thought that the ending is weak – a little too abrupt and not all that convincing.

In my opinion, the reason Gilda is classified as a film noir is down to the theme more than the look. Cameraman Rudolph Maté does create some characteristically noir images – the waterfront opening, some of the nighttime casino scenes, and the way Ballin seems to blend and merge with the shadows – but much of the movie features bright, flat lighting. The edgy, darker tone stems largely from the setting and plot twists. A casino has a built-in sense of fatalism to it anyway, a place where fortune quite literally depends on the turn of a card or a throw of the dice. When this is combined with the South American setting, and the allusions to ex-Nazis involved in political and economic intrigue, it conjures up that sense of exotic danger that was very much in fashion in the mid to late 40s. Of course all this really only amounts to Casablanca style escapism; the key element that tips it over into the world of noir is the sadomasochistic relationship at the centre of the tale. The film is essentially a love story, but there’s a vicious, unpleasant side to the romance. Everything revolves around the title character, as she punishes both Johnny and Ballin, but in so doing she incurs arguably greater punishment at their hands in return.

The unquestionable star of the show is Rita Hayworth, the role becoming the one with which she would remain most closely identified for the rest of her life. Hayworth herself acknowledged this and it seems she had mixed feelings about it – her frank admission that the men in her life went to bed with Gilda and woke up with her is very telling. Whatever the personal legacy may have been, Hayworth certainly breathed life into what, in other hands, could have been a cardboard cutout character. She was excellent at getting across the contrast between the vivacious bravado that characterized Gilda’s public facade and the uncertainty and self-loathing she felt in more private moments. Her big scene, the one that is endlessly referenced in books and retrospectives, where she tries to provoke a reaction from Johnny with a knowing parody of a public striptease is justly famous. However, it also tends to overshadow the good work she did all through the movie.

While Rita Hayworth is the one most people will remember from the movie, Gilda worked wonders for the career of another of its stars. Glenn Ford, like a number of other actors, had seen service during the war, and Gilda was the film that gave him the boost he needed and raised his profile. Wartime experiences affected a lot of performers, it gave them a different air, a toughness and a touch of weariness too. Ford went on to work in some pretty good noir pictures, Lang’s The Big Heat being the best of them, and he did seem to belong in that world. As he did in his numerous western roles, Ford brought a kind of dissatisfaction with himself to his noir parts. Johnny Farrell has a veneer of cockiness and self-assurance to him, but Ford could always invest his characters with a nervy, slightly uncomfortable quality too. These may be little things yet they add up and make characters more believable and realistic. Although both Johnny and Gilda are flawed individuals, they’re not villainous. But a movie like this needs a bogeyman, and George Macready was a fine choice for the role of Ballin. Right from the beginning there’s a sinister air about him, and Macready’s innate charm and culture accentuates that. The repressed manner and wonderfully distinctive voice add to his calm menace – you honestly get the feeling that crossing this man would be an extremely foolish move. Of the supporting cast, I find Steven Geray the most memorable. This washroom attendant whose contempt for just about everyone, apart from Gilda, sees him making one flip comment after another seems to be given a lot of slack. I especially like the way we never find out exactly what leverage he has – the one time he’s about to reveal it he’s interrupted, and we’re left wondering.

I actually drafted this piece back in July, after I’d seen it one balmy Saturday night in an outdoor cinema in Athens – always a great way to enjoy a classic movie. However, I realized my holidays were fast approaching and so I decided to hold off publishing it. I though I might want to go back and tweak it some, but I’ve decided to leave it just as I’d written it a few days after watching the film. I’ve seen Gilda many times over the years and always enjoyed its dark romance. I wouldn’t say it’s one of those movies that reveals too many new things on repeated viewings yet it’s not the kind that grows stale either. It’s earned its classic status, and it’s well worth visiting or revisiting.