Coroner Creek

Revenge is a dish best served cold, or so the saying goes. Perhaps the truth is that it’s no dish at all, just an unappetizing craving arising out of wounded emotions. If anything, the coldness, or let’s at least say coolness, that inevitably arrives with the passage of time leads to a more satisfactory reckoning. Coroner Creek (1948) is what is commonly termed a revenge western, that is a story driven by the desire to settle a score and, as with the better examples of this variation on a genre, questions the desirability of this outcome and the effect on the protagonist.

A stagecoach being pursued by a band of whooping Apaches across the sun-baked badlands. That’s something of a cliché in the genre and it’s how Coroner Creek opens. While it may be a familiar and well-worn situation it’s still a dramatic one and does offer the twist of having the Apache raiders seen to be in the employ of a white man, one who remains unidentified as he methodically goes about shooting those within the stage, shooting all but one woman. Here we have the motivation for our protagonist Chris Danning (Randolph Scott) – although this isn’t explicitly stated till later in proceedings it is obvious enough from the start and I doubt if it constitutes a major spoiler. Nor does the identity of the man who Danning has determined to track down and kill. He pieces together enough information from a wounded Apache to allow him to set out across the arid southwest with an idea of who his quarry is. His path eventually leads to the town of Coroner Creek and the local strongman Younger Miles (George Macready). Danning’s game plan is to needle, snipe and provoke Miles into a reaction, to pick away relentlessly at his armor and tease threads from the cloak of respectability he has surrounded himself with. The brutalizing effect this is having on all concerned is made shocking clear on a number of occasions yet there is also a small flicker of hope amid all this darkness, one borne by the calm and steadfast hotel owner Kate Hardison (Marguerite Chapman).

Coroner Creek, adapted from a Luke Short novel, has a strong spiritual element running through it. This is natural enough for a story dealing with a moral issue such as the quest for revenge. It’s Marguerite Chapman’s character who represents this spirituality most obviously, her religious faith (though never piety or sanctimony) is clear to see and her concern for Danning runs deeper than a simple attraction. The movie never shies away from portraying the dehumanizing power of vengeance and it’s the willingness to confront this that raises it above average. Director Ray Enright (Flaming Feather) does some of his best work in this picture and, alongside cinematographer Fred Jackman Jr, shoots from a range of angles and uses the light and shadow to great effect.

Did you ever get hit with a bullet? It’s like a hunk of iron ripping and tearing into you. It sets you on fire inside. Sometimes you don’t die right away. You just bleed and hurt for a long time.

Those lines are spoken by one of the characters late on, just before he gets to experience the truth of his own words in a scene that is memorable for its unflinching cruelty. In fact for a movie made in the late 1940s Coroner Creek is remarkably graphic. There is a sequence around the middle which involves the mutilation of two of the characters’ gun hands. This is mean enough in itself but the fact they act as bookends for a truly bruising encounter between Scott and Forrest Tucker (rehearsing for a similarly tough brawl a couple of years later in The Nevadan) adds to the shock value. However, it’s important to understand that none of this is gratuitous, it’s not put on screen simply to provide some cheap thrill. The picture is nothing if not frank, and it openly acknowledges the effects of violence on the characters, both physically and psychologically.

Scott naturally dominates the movie and continues on that path he’d chosen in the post-WWII years (although arguably it was a journey begun even earlier in the likes of Lang’s Western Union), a path which would trace the development and gradual maturing of his western persona. There are moments of gentleness and humor where his patrician charm shines through but these are overshadowed by the darker, driven side of his character, looking ahead to the obsessive quality he would then hone to perfection in collaboration with Boetticher. Marguerite Chapman, as noted above, helps to temper this somewhat and her benign influence is not to be underestimated. The other significant female part belongs to Sally Eilers, in one of her last roles here and working for ex-husband and producer Harry Joe Brown.  Her contribution is big enough yet it feels slightly truncated at the same time, as though it ought to have had a bit more depth than is ultimately the case. I’m left wondering if certain plot strands weren’t trimmed or curtailed, and there are a few instances of clumsy editing too.

Scott tended to do well when it came to villains to face off against and actors such as Richard Boone and Lee Marvin helped him raise his own game. George Macready (did he ever play a good guy?) is the bad man on this occasion and he is as cold and manipulative as one would expect. That carefully modulated voice, disconcertingly prim and menacing, is well used. He is strongly supported by Forrest Tucker; simultaneously amiable and rotten, he uses his physical presence to excellent effect. Alongside these two Douglas Fowley is shifty up until his spectacular demise while Joe Sawyer is wonderfully contemptible as the blowhard whom Scott threatens in a most chilling way – another of those hard-edged little scenes in a hard little movie. Of the others in the cast, Edgar Buchanan and Wallace Ford turn in the kind of carefully judged performances that make them a pleasure to watch.

Coroner Creek made its appearance on DVD  in the US some years ago in a Sony/TCM collection of Randolph Scott westerns . The movie was shot in Cinecolor, with the limitations of that process, and is variable in appearance. At times the image looks very strong and then weakens noticeably. All told though, I’d say it looks quite acceptable. The film shares disc space with John Sturges’ The Walking Hills and has a handful of supplements such as galleries and a short filmed intro by Ben Mankiewicz. I would place the movie among Scott’s more enjoyable and interesting efforts, and it should easily satisfy any fan of the star’s work.

Manuela

Movies which play out for the most part in confined spaces typically generate tension, the limited options available to the characters mirrored by their spatial restrictions. Another layer is added when the dramatic space involved is to be found on a vehicle, a train or a ship for instance. When this occurs the concept of a journey is naturally woven into the fabric of the drama. A journey is generally of interest in itself, even when approached on the simplest and most literal of terms, and that interest rises if it can be viewed as a metaphor for the characters’ progress through life. It is this spiritual or emotional journey which resides at the heart of Manuela (1957), a modest, self-contained and deeply satisfying work directed by Guy Hamilton in the years before Hollywood and the James Bond movies beckoned.

There’s nothing like a death to focus the mind on life, and that’s essentially what happens as this movies opens. The story is one of a ship and more particularly the master of that vessel. That opening has him setting off to lay his chief engineer to rest in the South American port where he has docked. The ship is a beaten up tramp freighter and its equally weathered and weary captain is James Prothero (Trevor Howard). He’s seen to be drifting into a dissatisfied and increasingly drunken middle age, commenting at one point on how the passage of the years has not only crept up on him but also caught him unawares, leaving him with that unwelcome sense that there is more time behind him than there is lying ahead. Yet despite his conviction that he’s teetering on the brink of a bitter autumn, events are about to take a wholly unexpected turn, one which will see him enjoying something of a late spring instead. Taking advantage  of the amorous and expansive nature of Maltese crew member Mario (Pedro Armendariz), a beautiful half English girl Manuela (Elsa Martinelli) inveigles her way on board as a stowaway. Her presence seems set to cause friction and does so initially but it’s her longer term effect on the jaded captain that drives the drama. As he experiences a renewed appetite for life, he becomes distracted from his duties, switching his attention to the course he’d like to see his life following as opposed to the potentially hazardous one his vessel is in the process of navigating.

Guy Hamilton appears to have been a very polished man and that cool, worldly sophistication shows through in his movies. After serving an apprenticeship as assistant director under the likes of John Huston and Carol Reed, Hamilton went on to take charge of a number of well made British dramas including an adaptation of Priestley’s An Inspector Calls as well as The Intruder, a little known gem with Jack Hawkins. In Manuela everything revolves around priorities, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the recognition of what they are; that and the fact it’s never too late to reassess and realign those priorities. While there is some very moody imagery via Otto Heller’s cinematography and a few quite dark moments, the overall tone of the movie is uplifting and optimistic. The story was filmed with two different endings – it’s an adaptation of a novel by William Woods, although not having read that I can’t say which one is more faithful to the source – and without going into details and spoilers I’ll just state that I vastly prefer the one used as the default for this release.

“… suddenly tonight, I saw myself growing old. And I didn’t like it. When you’re young you see the good days all ahead of you. Then suddenly you get older and catch sight of them behind you and wonder how in the devil’s name they got there.”

Trevor Howard had the lived in appearance that oozes character, his was a face and manner made for mature drama. The arc traced throughout this picture by Prothero is achieved skillfully and artfully. The bitterness and resignation of the first act is a brittle veneer that cracks completely with the arrival of the girl. What is revealed is a soul not yet aged irreversibly but hungry to taste hope once again. Of course for this kind of reawakening to make any sense, or have any credibility, it’s vital to have the right person providing the impetus. A young Elsa Martinelli easily fits that bill, exuding attraction and a frank charm. While those two are at the heart of the drama it’s also important to acknowledge the contribution of Pedro Armendariz. His role is a complex one, a figure of ebullience and menace too, a dangerous romantic with a dark side and generous heart, a braggart who is simultaneously a confessor. In support we get a number of familiar faces and talented figures from British cinema. Donald Pleasence has a sizeable role as a repressed and ultimately mean-spirited officer, one of those professional and spiritual zealots he excelled at playing. Other notables are Jack MacGowran, Warren Mitchell and Roger Delgado.

Blind buying movies can be a bit of a gamble and there’s no doubt that it doesn’t always pay off. However, an interesting cast and/or crew as well as an eye-catching piece of poster art will often get this viewer’s attention. Manuela was one of those blind buys when it showed up at a knockdown price in one of Network’s regular sales a few years ago. From a purely technical standpoint, it’s a terrific looking DVD with a sharp, smooth 1.66:1 image. I liked the fact the disc offered the alternative ending as an bonus feature. Apparently, different endings were used for the UK and overseas releases (according to IMDb at any rate) and I’m unsure which one is the default on the DVD – the UK one, presumably. This was a movie I viewed with absolutely no prior knowledge and consequently no particular expectations. Admittedly, there are a few inconsistencies in the script and some loose ends which are left untied. Nevertheless, I found it all a highly enjoyable experience and it’s a title I’m happy to recommend.

Edit: The movie was released in the US under the alternative title Stowaway Girl.