Wake of the Red Witch


Mention John Wayne and the tendency for most people is to think of his western roles. He has become so strongly identified with that particular genre in the public consciousness that it’s easy to forget how wide-ranging his career was. The many years Wayne spent at Republic Pictures saw him cast in a variety of genre pictures, some more suited to his talents than others. Aside from westerns, he tended to do well in adventurous pictures, if the setting happened to be an exotic one then so much the better. Wake of the Red Witch (1948) was one of Wayne’s more enjoyable non-western films of the 1940s, emphasizing his strengths as a performer for the most part. The movie itself is a reasonable effort, but is perhaps a little too dense in its plotting, and melodramatic in style, to be considered a complete success.

The story is adapted from Garland Roark’s bestselling novel, and it mixes in romance, high adventure and some pretty low skullduggery. Everything takes place in the South Seas, and opens on board the titular ship, The Red Witch. The crew are gathered on the deck to watch two of their shipmates beat each other into a bloody pulp, supervised by the vessel’s master. This is Captain Ralls (John Wayne), a grim, harsh figure who has ordered the two men to slug it out until he sees fit as punishment for their starting a fight on his ship. Right away we can see Ralls isn’t going to be an entirely sympathetic figure, and that initial impression is backed up by his subsequent actions: conspiring to cast doubts on the sanity of one of his officers, and then deliberately scuttling his own vessel. But why is Ralls doing such inexplicable things? We witness his drinking and the black rages that descend upon him, we hear allusions to a troubled past, but it’s only after his acquittal by a board of inquiry that the pieces begin to fall into place. By means of a couple of flashback sequences, it’s revealed that we’ve been seeing the fallout of a doomed love affair and the rivalry and thirst for revenge it inspired. As viewers, we’re seeing the tale develop through the eyes of Rosen (Gig Young), Ralls’ first officer. Rosen thought everything revolved around the millions in bullion lying in the belly of the sunken Red Witch, and the pearls they are currently seeking. However, these turn out to be merely side issues, and the real source of the mystery is a romantic triangle from the past. The side of this triangle are formed by Ralls, his former employer Sidneye (Luther Adler), and Angelique (Gail Russell). The aforementioned flashbacks show how greed brought Ralls and Sidneye together, and how their mutual desire for Angelique subsequently drove a wedge between them. Still, it’s no simple tale of revenge and thwarted love; the relationship between Ralls and Sidneye is extremely complex, and makes it clear that they still respect each other, while treating their quest for vengeance as a kind of grotesque game.


I think the biggest problem with Wake of the Red Witch is the complicated nature of the story, and the methods used to tell it. As a rule, I enjoy flashbacks in movies. They help reveal plot points to us slowly and allow a greater build up of mystery or suspense in the early stages. However, I feel they’re not always necessary, and can actually muddle a story. When you’ve got a fairly dense plot, with strong character interaction, there’s a good case for using simple and traditional linear storytelling. Honestly, this film has a lot going on, with various action sequences (including a fight with a giant octopus) running concurrent to the main drama. Now it’s all very entertaining, if a little heavy on the melodramatics at times, but it does tend to swamp you a little. The film was shot mainly on sets and in and around Californian locations but it still looks attractive. The lack of genuine location filming could be criticized, but movies with exotic settings were usually shot in this way at the time. Personally, I’m fond of these 40s pictures that recreate jungles and lost islands on the backlot; they have a look and charm all of their own and there’s a kind of artistry to their illusions. Edward Ludwig was never a top rank director despite a long list of credits and eventually moved into television. He does good enough work here though, especially in the action scenes. Also, Ludwig and his cameraman, Reggie Lanning, put together some nicely composed and atmospherically lit shots.

You still find plenty of people who will cheerfully declare that John Wayne wasn’t much of an actor, although that’s often accompanied by the sheepish admission that they haven’t seen that many of his films. I guess the whole larger than life persona of Wayne, the myth that seemed to grow up around the man is partially responsible for this. Of course he did make some eminently forgettable films too, but that’s something that can be said about almost any of the big stars of the studio system. Directors like Ford and Hawks were able to get the best out of Wayne, but it would be a mistake to think he only did good work for them. As important as the directors were, the quality of the role mattered too. In Wake of the Red Witch, Wayne got handed a strong part, and he ran with it. Ralls is a multifaceted character, a very three-dimensional figure. At times, he’s the expansive model of vigor – the kind Wayne could play with his eyes shut. And then there’s the darker side, the man of murderous rages and brooding intensity. It’s the ease with which Wayne managed to move between these contrasting aspects, and quite convincingly too, that makes his performance so memorable.


Gail Russell had a very fragile quality on screen, and for a good reason. That fragility was no affectation, it was a reflection of her own insecurities. Her film career was a short one, curtailed by her drinking and the premature death that came as a result. Nevertheless, she made some great films, particularly in the 40s, before her demons finally ran her to ground. She had already starred alongside Wayne with success in the charming Angel and the Badman, and their chemistry stands out in this film too. Most of her scenes in the movie are played with Wayne, and he seemed to bring out her warmth and vulnerability. Russell’s beauty is unquestioned, but the naturalism she displayed around Wayne only enhanced her screen presence. Forming the final side of the triangle was Luther Adler, an excellent character actor whatever the situation. The best screen villains are always the interesting ones, those who are more than flat cartoon figures. Adler nailed the malevolence and obsessiveness of Sidneye, and managed to make him curiously pitiful at the same time. One of the most fascinating things in Wake of the Red Witch is dynamic between Ralls and Sidneye – despite their enmity, they admire each other and actually appear to take pleasure in their mutual hatred.

Wake of the Red Witch isn’t so hard to find on DVD, having been released in a number of territories. It had been released in the US by Artisan back when that company had distribution rights to the Republic library. Those Artisan editions were a hit and miss affair, with some transfers being acceptable while others were extremely poor. Wake of the Red Witch was one of their better releases, displaying some damage but looking sharp and clean for the most part. There are no extra features whatsoever on the disc. The Republic library is now being handled by Olive Films in the US and this title is due for release in April. It will be offered on DVD or Blu-ray, and I should imagine it will scrub up nicely for those seeking a HD copy. I like the movie quite a lot, in spite of its weaknesses. Apart from the fact it looks good and has that escapist quality that grabbed me when I first saw it on TV as a kid, there also a really fine performance by John Wayne to recommend it. Maybe it’s not a great film, but it certainly is great fun.

99 River Street

There are worse things than murder. You can kill someone an inch at a time.

I guess it’s no secret that I have a real fondness for low budget movies; there’s something fascinating about seeing how filmmakers are able to stretch their resources. There have been a fair few highly successful films noir that fall into this category, and that shouldn’t be all that surprising. Noir is arguably the type of movie best suited to budget filmmaking, relying less on location and high production values than almost any other style of picture. In truth, a clever director and cameraman can not only transcend the limitations of a tight budget, but can actually turn it to their advantage. Those directors who spent much of their early careers working in the B units were able to capitalize on their years of experience, and the better ones could make a virtue out of austerity. Phil Karlson was one of those who managed to make quality movies even when the finances were severely restricted. 99 River Street (1953) may be his best film noir, Kansas City Confidential would possibly challenge it for that honor though, and it’s certainly among his better films.

For Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) it wasn’t so much that he could have been a contender – he was. The opening sees Driscoll slugging it out in the ring during a world heavyweight title fight. He actually floors the champion and is just ten seconds away from glory. However, Driscoll is a classic noir protagonist – fate has got his number – so his opponent picks himself up, lands a lucky punch that opens a bad wound over his eye, and wins the bout on a TKO. Just to underline Driscoll’s fall from the big time, the camera pulls back to reveal that the fight scene we’ve been watching is in reality a syndicated rerun on TV. Driscoll’s sitting there, reliving every blow traded, torturing himself, as the pain flickers across his battle-scarred features. With his boxing career in tatters, Driscoll makes a living as a cab driver. He’s not exactly thrilled with this, but that’s nothing compared to the contempt felt by his disgruntled wife Pauline (Peggie Castle). Pauline is a former showgirl, bitterly disappointed at the way things have turned out and convinced that Driscoll is nothing but a loser. She may have a point too; not only is Pauline about to run off with a small time hood, Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter), but Driscoll finds himself suckered into believing a melodramatic tale spun by an aspiring Broadway actress, Linda James (Evelyn Keyes). The point here is that Driscoll is one of those eternal fall guys, the kind of man who has bad things happen to him just because. As such, it’s no major surprise, least of all to Driscoll himself I guess, when he finds himself framed for murder and on the run. Nevertheless, he does have a few things in his favor – a kind of two-fisted toughness and never say die tenacity, and a couple of friends in his boss (Frank Faylen) and a repentant Linda. With the odds heavily stacked against him, and time running short, Driscoll has no option but to scour the city at night in pursuit of the real murderer in the hopes of catching up with him before he skips the country.

Lots of movies tend to get tagged as gritty, and not all of them deserve it. 99 River Street is the real deal though – positively brimming with lowlife characters, sudden and brutal violence, and the stench of hard luck. Driscoll is marked as a loser right from the first scene, but just about every character we meet fits that description to a greater or lesser extent. The strongest examples of film noir introduced viewers to a gallery of misfits, chiselers, cheats, and saps. 99 River Street seems to have nothing else but such people, and director Phil Karlson positively revels in the sordid, seedy world these guys inhabit. The movie studiously avoids any sense of glamor, telling its tale against a backdrop of run down stores, dingy back rooms and waterfront bars. The decrepit city setting was a staple of many a noir picture, and Karlson uses it well to evoke a world of lost hopes and broken dreams. He also keeps the pace brisk and that helps add to the sense of urgency of Driscoll’s quest. Stylistically, the film only intermittently features what could be termed classic noir visuals in the first half – the “confession” by Linda in a deserted theater being one example – but cameraman Franz Planer does turn it on as the climax approaches. The final chase and fight along the dockside makes use of a selection of long, medium and close-up shots, and bathes them all in atmospheric, inky shadows. Karlson was doing some great work in the 50s, and a movie like 99 River Street genuinely celebrates the meanness and toughness of film noir at its best. It’s also interesting to note the way the movie plays around with the viewer’s perceptions of reality – the opening sequence that turns out to be a television recording, and the theater scene that tricks both the audience and the lead character.

John Payne is something of a forgotten man these days, probably due to the fact that most of his best work was done in B movies and programmers. Starting with The Crooked Way in 1949 though, he made a series of tough and entertaining noirs and westerns, frequently working for Karlson or Allan Dwan. He had a rough, lived-in look about him that made him believable in these movies, and 99 River Street drew on that weary, beaten appearance. Payne gave a very edgy performance, full of rage, frustration and a kind of bitter misogyny. He completely convinced as a man who knew himself for a sap, who allowed himself to be strung along by the wrong kind of women all his life, and despised himself and them for it. His sudden bursts of violence when provoked too far had a ring of authenticity to them – whenever he landed a punch you could tell he meant it to do the maximum damage. Of course, a hard character like this needs something or someone to balance them, to ground them and stop them sliding too far into macho aggression. Evelyn Keyes was nearing the end of her big screen career, having hit the heights in Gone with the Wind, and so had just the right kind of faded disillusionment for her role. Initially, she comes across as slightly skittish and flaky, but soon proves her worth when the chips are down. There’s a common misconception that the only interesting women in film noir are those who play the femme fatale. However, I’m of the opinion that the frequently unsung Girl-Friday parts are every bit as significant. Keyes’ role here is vital in eliciting sympathy for Payne – without her presence and loyalty, there’s a danger of his less attractive qualities running out of control. That’s not to say the femme fatale, Peggie Castle in this case, is unimportant here. However, her role is much more one-dimensional and consequently less interesting. The film features a particularly strong supporting line-up: Frank Faylen is very likeable as Payne’s stoic boss, and Brad Dexter does a nice line in smarm and self-interest. Rounding out the cast is Jay Adler as a vindictive fence and Jack Lambert as his strong-arm sidekick.

There are a few options as far as DVD editions of 99 River Street are concerned. The film has been released as a MOD disc in the US via MGM, and it’s also available on pressed disc in Spain from Art House/Paycom. I have the Spanish release, and the transfer is pretty good. There are some instances of softness here and there, but it’s clean and sharp for the most part. One criticism I do have is that I found the sound a little low at times – not very poor, but noticeable. The disc has no extra features and subtitles are not forced – they can be disabled from the setup menu. All in all, I think 99 River Street is a fine example of early 50s film noir, exhibiting a harder edge than the usual 40s variety. It also shows off Karlson’s ability to shoot lean, tight little movies economically. He’s a director who’s not really known outside of film buff circles and I think his stronger films, such as this one, deserve a bit more attention. It’s worth checking out.

The Last Wagon

There she lies…as far into the west as your eyes can see, and then some – The Canyon of Death. The Indians say you can hear cries in the night down there that you’ll hear all your life…usually it’s only the wind.

The more I watch Delmer Daves’ westerns, the higher they rise in my estimation. As a body of work, they work on so many levels and manage to weave a variety of themes into their plots. In terms of basic structure, The Last Wagon (1956) has a simple and straightforward plot – a tough outsider uses his knowledge of the frontier to lead a group of greenhorns to safety. Yet within this fairly standard framework, there are a number of interesting elements vying for the viewer’s attention. The film can be enjoyed as a kind of outdoor survivalist epic; however, it’s also a critique of race and prejudice, a celebration of the positive influence of women, a revenge tale, and ultimately a journey towards redemption. Above all though, and this is the case with most of Daves’ pictures, there is an overriding sense of optimism that pervades the movie. In short, and characteristic of the best westerns of the 50s, it’s an affirmation of the essentially positive aspects of human nature, making it a very American film.

It’s Arizona in 1873, and a rider makes his way down towards a river. The camera pulls back to reveal another figure, a rifleman clad in buckskins concealed on the near bank. He calmly takes aim and drops the rider before wading across to confirm his kill. This dramatic pre-credits sequence introduces Comanche Todd (Richard Widmark) in ambiguous terms – is this silent, ruthless killer the hunter or the hunted? It’s soon established that he falls into the latter category, a fugitive being pursued by a relentless posse. Still, Todd is no hapless or helpless victim – he’s an accomplished survivor, having been raised by and lived among the Comanche for twenty years. Nevertheless, he’s not some invulnerable superhuman either, and soon finds himself the bound captive of a brutal sheriff (George Mathews), the last of the posse members. Now all this is just a build-up to the main events of the story, which kick in when the two men cross paths with a wagon train of settlers. In one of the most memorable images from the movie, Todd finds himself shackled to the spokes of a wagon wheel as the settlers reluctantly agree to allow the sheriff and his prisoner to accompany them. Todd’s presence stirs a mixed reaction; the hero-worship of a young boy (Tommy Rettig), a vague attraction in the kid’s elder sister and guardian (Felicia Farr), and bitter resentment among two half sisters – one of whom is part Indian (Susan Kohner) and the other (Stephanie Griffin) a spoiled and overt racist. All of these elements are explored and probed more deeply after disaster befalls the camp. While the young people sneak off for a midnight swim, an Apache raiding party descends on the settlers and kills everyone. Everyone except Todd, whose wagon they roll over a cliff with him still attached. Miraculously, the plunge doesn’t kill him and leaves him in a position to take charge of the frightened and confused group of young people. It’s now down to this wanted killer to lead his raw companions through the Canyon of Death, and on to safety. Aside from the ever-present danger, Todd’s progress is made more difficult by the suspicion of the group and their internal wrangling. What’s more, every step closer to salvation for the youngsters brings Todd nearer a date with the hangman.

As I said back at the beginning, one of the notable features of much of Delmer Daves’ work is its optimism. I’ve mentioned before a tendency in Daves’ films towards endings that can appear weak in relation to what has preceded. However, as a result of some discussions we’ve had on this site, I’ve been reassessing this position. If Daves’ films are viewed as pieces whose aim is to project a positive take on humanity, then the relatively upbeat endings make a lot more sense and actually fit the narrative thrust better. Additionally, and I’m referring particularly to the westerns here, Daves’ best films are all from the 50s, and this progression towards a positive resolution for his anti-heroic protagonists mirrors the general trend in the genre during that decade. In The Last Wagon, Todd starts out as a man driven on by his thirst for revenge against those who destroyed his family. Although he’s never fully drawn back to white society, he is offered a new perspective on life. It’s the combination of a boy’s devotion and loyalty, and the burgeoning love of a girl that maps out a more hopeful future for him. It’s only through his acknowledgment of these two factors that Todd is able to seek out and achieve the personal redemption that gives meaning to the story. From a purely technical point of view, Daves’ work on The Last Wagon is as good as anything he did. The director, along with cameraman Wilfrid Cline, shot the film almost exclusively on location in Arizona, and the use of landscape is spectacular at times. There are many instances of wide, long shots looking down on and across the vast expanses dotted with canyons and buttes. These shots emphasize both the freedom of the country, and also the isolation and relative insignificance of the characters. It all makes for a wonderful contrast with the tight, intimate feeling conveyed by the scenes showing the group interacting whenever they stop to make camp.

As far as performances are concerned, the film really belongs to both Widmark and Felicia Farr. What is most remarkable about Widmark’s playing in The Last Wagon is his physicality. For an actor whose distinctive voice and looks are such a large part of his repertoire, Widmark made less use of them here  than in his other movies. Instead, it’s his cat-like grace and spatial awareness that are to the fore. One would expect a man who has lived his adult life in harmony with the wilderness to appear comfortable and almost at one with his natural surroundings. Such is the case with Widmark as he pads round soundlessly and deftly skips across the rocks and sand. Widmark brought a genuine physical confidence to this role, and his fight scenes – especially his duel, using knife and manacle, with two Apache warriors – have a ring of authenticity to them. On top of that, there’s a raw frankness that Widmark achieves in his scenes together with Felicia Farr. The actress made three films for Delmer Daves, and the quality of the work she did makes me regret they hadn’t collaborated more. In westerns, femininity is seen as a civilizing force, balancing masculine individualism and aggression, and Daves was very good at highlighting this vital aspect. As in her other two films for the director, Farr plays a pivotal role in drawing out the hero and humanizing him. Daves seemed to have a knack for tapping into Farr’s strengths and mining her attractive vulnerability. Just like in Jubal and 3:10 to Yuma, Farr’s intimate scenes with the hero are poignant and beautifully memorable.

While the central character of Comanche Todd, and his deep respect for native ways, plays a large part in getting the anti-racist message of the movie across, it’s by no means the only one. Perhaps equally important are the roles of Susan Kohner and Stephanie Griffin. The latter’s open hostility towards her half-sister, based purely on her disdain for her Indian blood, exposes the ugliness that is only disguised by her superficial beauty. Again, the redemptive nature of the western story is emphasized through the gradual transformation of this hate fueled character into a more human and understanding figure by the end. In contrast to Griffin’s naked bigotry, Kohner is the very epitome of dignity and self-deprecation. If Griffin’s character develops in an interesting way, then Kohner’s goes on an equally fascinating journey. It’s through her character, more so even than Widmark’s, that the whole question of identity is addressed. The point being made in the movie is the importance of pride in oneself, and the crucial fact that one can be proud without allowing apparently conflicting social identities to displace each other.

The Last Wagon has been widely available on DVD in most territories for some time now. I have the US release from Fox, and it features a fine anamorphic scope transfer. The disc is one of those odd, from my perspective at least, ones which has the widescreen version on one side and a pan & scan copy on the other. Personally, I see 4:3 versions of scope movies as redundant and can’t really understand the need to include them. Extra features amount to a series of galleries and a selection of trailers for other Fox westerns. The movie comes from Delmer Daves’ strongest period, when he could hardly put a foot wrong, and has to rate among his best work. Like all the best films, The Last Wagon works fine if viewed simply as a piece of entertainment. However, its real strength is the way, as all great westerns do, it turns the focus on other issues and themes, and so encourages the viewer to think. The fact that both Jubal and 3:10 to Yuma are about to get released on Blu-ray by Criterion brought this film back to my attention –  I’d love to think those releases might lead to a critical and popular reappraisal of the strengths of Delmer Daves in particular and the western in general.



British attempts at producing noir thrillers have tended to be a hit and miss affair, the greatest stumbling block generally being an inability to strike the right tone. The nuts and bolts are easy enough to put in place: the city setting, the night, the shadows and key lights, some criminal enterprise to provide a framework. However, British movies of the classic noir period (the 40s and 50s) struggle to escape the rigid class structures that remained firmly in place at the time. American films benefited enormously from the more flexible social structure of the country, which allowed filmmakers to blend in characters from a variety of backgrounds. Despite its best efforts, British noir tends to be forever trapped in a middle-class world and, consequently, loses something of the edge of danger that helped elevate pictures from across the Atlantic.

Eyewitness (1956) opens in these typically middle-class surroundings, with a minor domestic spat involving a young couple.  Jay (Michael Craig) and Lucy (Muriel Pavlow) are two young suburbanites who have run into a bit of a crisis in their marriage. Jay is a guy who wants to live better than his income allows and has been accumulating a bit of debt buying stuff on credit. His latest acquisition, a brand new TV set, proves to be the straw that breaks the camels back though. Lucy is not at all impressed, such apparent profligacy failure to think of tomorrow going against the grain with her. In a foul temper, and threatening to leave for good, Lucy stalks out of the house to try to cool off.

While Jay sits home, toying with his new purchase and reflecting on the injustices of married life, Lucy’s wanderings take her to a movie theater. And it’s at this point the story starts to take shape. Jay’s feelings of frustration drive him out in search of a drink and some sympathetic male company, just at the moment Lucy’s conscience pricks at her and she decides to call him up. Getting no answer on the phone, Lucy is making her way through the theater when she chances upon a robbery in progress.

It’s Lucy’s misfortune to witness two men, Wade (Donald Sinden) & Barney (Nigel Stock), in the process of cracking the safe and roughing up the manager. Barney sets off in pursuit of the panic-stricken woman as Wade goes about settling matters with the ill-fated manager. Lucy’s terrified flight takes her out of the cinema, onto the street, and straight into the path of an oncoming bus. The situation leaves Wade and Barney in a quandary; is the unexpected witness going to live? And if she does, how much will she recall?

Wade reveals himself to be not only a cool customer, but a nasty piece of work to boot. His primary concern is his own self-preservation, and he coerces the meek Barney into falling in with his schemes. Wade has no intention of leaving any loose strands that may, in time, weave themselves into a noose to hang him. Following the ambulance that carries the comatose Lucy to a local hospital, Wade has in mind to dispose of this potential threat. Despite Barney’s protests, Wade takes it upon himself to stalk the now helpless Lucy and ensure nothing can be traced back to him. And so the bulk of the movie involves Wade’s attempts to gain entry to the communal ward where Lucy is taken. The suspense of the film derives from Wade’s determination, and increasing frustration, to silence this inconvenient witness. All the while, the net draws closer, time is running short and the opportunities grow fewer. Everything builds relentlessly towards a dramatic finale in a deserted and vaguely sinister operating theater.

Muriel Box was one of those rarities in classic era cinema, a female director. After writing some strong British movies – The Seventh Veil (1945) and The Brothers (1947) – she began directing in 1949. However, her career was closely linked to her husband, producer Sydney Box, and the break up of their marriage also signaled an end to her time behind the camera. Eyewitness sees Box making good use of the inherent suspense generated by the setting. A hospital at night is full of dramatic potential, the random comings and goings, the relative anonymity, that sense of disquiet aroused by the sight of mask-wearing professionals silently padding along starkly lit corridors. As the story progresses, Box ensures the tension grows in increments and the visuals reflect the increasing darkness of what we’re watching.

I think the biggest weakness stems from a basic flaw in the script. The success of pretty much any film, and especially a thriller, depends on having if not a hero then a recognizable figure that the viewer can identify with or root for. Eyewitness suffers in this respect; since it’s clearly intended that we should side with Lucy. However, she spends the bulk of the running time either unconscious or semi-conscious, effectively taking her out of the equation. There’s a similar problem with Barney, another whose presence ought to draw sympathy, but who ends up sidelined much of the time. In the end, we see things predominantly from Wade’s point of view, and he’s such a thoroughly bad lot, without a single redeeming feature, that it’s impossible to view him even in an anti-heroic light When it comes to the performances, Donald Sinden is pretty good as the twitchy killer with a slightly manic air. Still, the best work is probably done by Nigel Stock as the deaf safe-cracker whose dream of moving to New Zealand has seen him roped into a scheme that’s a whole lot more than he bargained for. Pavlow and Craig are so-so as the young couple whose marital tiff pitches them into a perilous situation, but there’s no great depth to their characterization.

In the final analysis, Eyewitness is a mid-range British crime thriller. The story is gripping enough but the lack of a sympathetic central character does damage it somewhat. The movie is available on DVD in the UK as part of a Donald Sinden box set from ITV. It’s a reasonably good transfer, presented in the correct 1.66:1 aspect ratio, though without anamorphic enhancement for widescreen TVs.

Note: I originally published an edited version of this piece as a Noir of the Week for The Blackboard.



We all die, just a question of when.

I’m an unashamed fan of westerns from the 1950s, the genre’s golden years, but I’m also pretty fond of those from the following decade. By the end of the 60s, with the spaghetti western in the ascendancy, revisionism was in the air, though that movement wouldn’t come to full fruition until we pass into the 70s. For the classic Hollywood western these were the transitional years, a painful period in some ways, with the genre thrashing about in search of direction. Such times tend to bring about a combination of successes, throwbacks and misfires. When we view the era in this light, I think it’s fair to say that the 1960s was a decade that was simultaneously fascinating and frustrating for western fans. Ultimately, revisionism would strip the genre down to the bone and train a probing searchlight on its innermost workings. One could write an in-depth study on the effects of this process, and I have a hunch the conclusion would be that no genre, least of all one so firmly rooted in myth as the western, could emerge unscathed from such an intimate examination. But I’m not going to take on that task here; instead I’m going to look at one of those late 60s westerns that seemed to benefit from the turmoil of the time, Martin Ritt’s Hombre (1967). Here we have a movie that avoids the outright nihilism of the Euro western, retains the structure and moral complexity of the best 50s efforts, and looks forward to the bleak honesty of revisionism. In short, it becomes a kind of philosophical meditation on social responsibility.

The classic western hero has frequently been characterized as a loner, a man drifting along on the fringes of society for one reason or another. Such a ploy isn’t accidental of course; it allows us to connect with the spirit of freedom and individualism that’s a significant part of the western’s attraction, and also helps objectify the view of society and encroaching civilization. Generally though, the hero does feel himself drawn in some way towards the society he observes. Hombre presents us with John Russell (Paul Newman), a white man raised by the Apache who has categorically rejected the ways of his own race. He’s first seen in his preferred environment, rounding up wild horses, and has clearly been fully integrated into the Apache lifestyle. However, news of an inheritance – a beaten up boarding house – brings him back to white society, at least temporarily. Arriving in town, he’s adopted the outward appearance of his own people but retains the cool detachment of the Apache. Essentially, Russell has made it his business to mind his own business – to have as little contact with the white world he has rejected as possible. He sells up and books passage on the last stagecoach out. Yet, the interrelated nature of society doesn’t really work that way; all action, even calculated inaction, has its consequences. In a sense it’s Russell’s single-minded detachment that lays the groundwork for what follows.The sale of the boarding house, effectively acts as the catalyst that finally pushes at least one man towards crime, and Russell’s own determination to avoid intervention in the affairs of others ensures that a bullying outlaw, Grimes (Richard Boone), gets to ride the stage. The first hour of the film is a fairly sedate affair, concentrating on establishing the character of each passenger and offering some insight into their relationships. Collectively, they add up to a cross-section of frontier types: the outwardly respectable older man and his younger, disillusioned wife, a young couple coming to terms with the realities of married life, the veteran driver who’s long since bid farewell to his ideals, the woman who has been around and remains a survivor, the swaggering bully, and the enigma that is Russell. Locked within the confines of the bumpy stagecoach, the tensions, prejudices and fears of this disparate little group simmers away just below the surface. The pressure comes to a head when they are held up on a remote part of the trail, and the truth about each one emerges. Abandoned in the wilderness, and facing the very real prospect of perishing, they turn towards Russell to guide them out. But Russell is now in something of a quandary; apart from the fact he’d been shunned due to his Apache affiliations, he feels no obligation towards his fellow man anyway. He’s faced with a philosophical dilemma  – does he follow his head and leave these people to the fate he reckons they deserve, or does he listen to that still distant voice within that urges empathy.

If we count Hud, then Martin Ritt made three westerns with Paul Newman, and all of them have their points of interest. Adapted from the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name, Hombre is the closest to the traditional western. The basic structure owes much to John Ford’s classic Stagecoach, but it’s a much more cynical affair. The two films do share the vital element of spiritual redemption for their hero, but Ritt’s movie reaches that point in a more tragic and bitter way. The script raises interesting questions about how much we owe others, how far we should go for those we deem undeserving of our sympathy, and whether intervention or isolation is the correct approach. Bearing in mind the film was made while the war in Vietnam was still raging, I think that last issue must have been in the minds of the filmmakers. However, leaving that aside and looking at things from a purely personal perspective, the problems continue to be thorny. Russell not only knows that assisting the abandoned travelers will add to his own peril, but his years living outside of white society have meant that he no longer identifies with these people. Circumstances have resulted in his being caught in a kind of cultural no-mans-land, where his head and heart are in conflict. In cinematic terms, this is a reflection of the position the western itself was facing in 1967, with its soul and conscience pulling in one direction while social and economic factors were pressuring it to go another way. Visually, with the aid of James Wong Howe’s great cinematography and the Arizona landscape, it bears all the hallmarks of the classic western, but the existentialist undertones of its theme point to the future.


Mrs Favor: I can’t imagine eating a dog and not thinking anything of it.
John Russell: You even been hungry, lady? Not just ready for supper. Hungry enough so that your belly swells?
Mrs Favor: I wouldn’t care how hungry I got. I know I wouldn’t eat one of those camp dogs.
John Russell: You’d eat it. You’d fight for the bones, too.
Mrs Favor: Have you ever eaten a dog, Mr. Russell?
John Russell: Eaten one and lived like one.

Paul Newman was an adherent of the method style of acting. Now I’m no fan of the method and the frequently affected performances that it encouraged. I understand it is meant to help the actors dig deeper within themselves and find a truth in their role yet it often seemed to produce the polar opposite, a mannered performance that actually draws attention to itself. Some of Newman’s early roles are badly blighted by this in my opinion. However, by the time he came to Hombre he had moderated his acting style, and what we see on screen is far better, far more involving. As far as I can remember, and it’s been a few years since I read Leonard’s novel, Newman’s portrayal of John Russell is pretty close in spirit to how the character came across on the page. It’s a very quiet performance; I think the stillness of the man, the eternal patience of his Apache side is perfectly captured. There’s a great sense of his being aware of everything, absorbing the sounds, smells and moods around him and storing them away. When he’s aroused to action there’s a jarring abruptness to it that makes it all the more effective. The first instance takes place in a cantina where Russell sits and calmly watches and listens to his Apache companions being goaded by two ignorant redneck types. We’re expecting something, a reaction of some kind, maybe a rebuttal from this soft-spoken man. But the sudden swing of his rifle butt to shatter and drive the splinters of a whiskey glass into the face of the barroom lout is both shocking and satisfying. In a similar vein, the later eruption of aggression when he opens fire on Boone when he comes to parley is made more intense by the apparent calm that precedes it.

Richard Boone’s crafty and cunning Grimes is the ideal foil to Newman’s motionless and emotionless Russell. Boone gave countless performances that were straight out of the top drawer and Grimes has to rank up there among the finest. He had a real knack for conveying a quiet threat – there was always the feeling that here was a man it would be foolish to cross. His first scene in the station when he intimidates a soldier into turning the last ticket available over to him illustrates this quality well. There’s something in that craggy face and low-pitched voice that conveys his intent far more effectively than bluster and showboating; not an easy task but when it works, it works wonderfully. Of the three female roles in the movie, Diane Cilento had the most substantial and the one with the greatest significance. Generally, I feel she was an underrated performer who was always interesting to watch. She played the most down to earth of the three women on that stagecoach, and the one with the lowest social status. Russell’s decision to sell up saw her out of a job and on the streets but with her spirit unbroken. The script offered her several opportunities to shine and she took each one, displaying an earthy and attractive honesty. She was also fortunate to be playing the character whose mentality the average viewer could most readily identify with, providing a kind of bridge between Newman’s omnipotent aloofness and the self-interest of the others.

Fredric March had a nice little late career turn as the corrupt Indian agent, the one whose presence poses the greatest danger to the survival of the group. Basically, he represents all that’s wrong with the society that Russell has rejected – corruption, vanity, weakness and hypocrisy. Still, despite portraying a deeply unpleasant person, March manages to inject a good deal of pathos into his performance and leaves you feeling a little sorry for this man who has transitioned poorly from the successes of his youth; he did something similar in Inherit the Wind, where he tapped into the human frailty of another character who was essentially unsympathetic. Martin Balsam was a first-rate character actor who enriched many a great movie – 12 Angry Men & The Taking of Pelham One Two Three to mention just two – with his everyman persona. As the stagecoach driver who has come to terms with his own limitations and realizes that he can no longer fight the tide of progress, he’s another figure with whom the audience can connect.

As far as I can tell, Hombre has never been released on DVD in the UK, though it is readily available from both the US and continental Europe. I have the Dutch DVD from Fox, which presents the movie most satisfactorily. The film is presented in anamorphic scope and the transfer is very pleasing with good colour and definition to show off James Wong Howe’s location photography. The disc offers a wide selection of subtitle options and the only extra feature is the theatrical trailer. For me, Hombre is a highly successful piece of work that hits the mark on a number of levels: as an entertaining western movie, an examination of race and social cohesion, and also contextually, for the position it occupies in the development of the genre. I consider the latter to be the most fascinating aspect, and yet another link between what may superficially appear to be irreconcilable eras. Nevertheless, whatever way one opts to view the film, it makes for a rewarding and thought-provoking experience.