Valerie

Perspectives and perceptions, views and understanding, the way we see events and how we process what’s seen. This is the basis of Gerd Oswald’s Valerie (1957), a western which serves up a set of circumstances and then challenges us to interpret them correctly. The art of the filmmaker is frequently dependent on the successful placement of the camera, the mise-en-scène that draws the eye this way and that and coaxes a reaction or nudges us towards a conclusion. In short, there is a degree of manipulation involved, or to put it less provocatively an encouragement of certain approaches. Ultimately though, if the filmmaker is to retain any integrity, it is incumbent on them to seek the truth. Valerie takes a handful of typical western themes – the nature of heroism and the concepts of opportunity and equality – and proceeds to filter them through the prism of a number of perspectives, bending and splitting them according to the perceptions of the individual narrator before finally arriving at the irrefutable truth.

The film begins with a killing, although the act itself is not seen (not at this point at any rate) and only the bloody consequences are presented to us. John Garth (Sterling Hayden), a wealthy rancher, approaches and enters the home later revealed to be that of his in-laws, a volley of gunshots is heard and then he exits allowing the audience to peek through the doorway at the carnage left behind. Among the torn bodies strewn across the parlor floor is the figure of Valerie (Anita Ekberg), Garth’s estranged wife. The story then shifts to the court where Garth finds himself on trial, his lawyer claiming self-defense while the prosecution alleges murder. The truth lies in the past, a past revealed over the course of the next hour or so via flashbacks resulting from the testimony of the witnesses and the defendant. What follows is a tale of love and jealousy, of mistrust and suspicion, culminating in abuse, violence and death. The telling and retelling of what led up to the tragedy and bloodshed could easily become tedious but the altered perspectives which uncover additional pieces of information as well as allowing different interpretations to form ensure it remains absorbing right up to the end, to that point where the full truth is laid bare and everything is made clear.

Director Gerd Oswald was an immigrant himself and perhaps that adds an extra layer to the aspect of the story which focuses on the outsider attempting to fit into new surroundings. Ekberg’s Valerie is shown as the exotic object of desire as well as the potentially untrustworthy interloper, a figure simultaneously representing attraction and repulsion to Garth’s native son. This highlights the essential weakness and vulnerability of her position, and by extension that of the immigrant in general, where her word is always likely to be regarded as suspect when set against that of the stolid familiarity which her husband embodies. There is too if not exactly an enthusiasm then at least a willingness to believe in some latent wantonness and loose morality in such an outsider, something reinforced by her apparent closeness to the local preacher (Anthony Steel) who also happens to be an immigrant. This subversion of the notion of the old west as a land of boundless freedom and opportunity is neatly done.

If the movie can be seen to be scratching at the mythology of the old west, it’s also following the path of many a 1950s melodrama by casting an unflinching glance at some of society’s most unassailable pillars. The idea of the hero, particularly that of the war hero, is a powerful one. It brings to mind images of selflessness and honor, something fine and upstanding. And so we come back to perception – Garth is celebrated and lauded as a war hero, a man who has served with distinction. Yet it’s slowly revealed that his role was a murkier one, he was by his own admission a de facto torturer whose job was to extract information from prisoners by whatever means were available.  Are we to perceive the violence Garth is capable of as an inherent character flaw or as an indictment of the brutalizing effect of war? Garth’s cruelty is not in question, only the underlying reasons are left to the discretion of the viewer.

Anita Ekberg and the Trevi Fountain sequence in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita are inextricably linked in my mind and I suspect that will be the case with many others, it’s one of those cinematic images that is universally recognizable. From what I’ve seen of her Hollywood career it could best be described as variable but there are still a few gaps I need to fill in and I really need to catch up with John Farrow’s Back from Eternity some time soon. For the most part she was fine as Valerie, although the moments where she was called upon to emphasize the “bad girl” side of the character are less successful than those where she is being victimized. Hayden’s physical presence is used to excellent effect and he generally turns in a strong performance, communicating the threatening and intimidating nature of his character most convincingly. The bluntness, the abruptness and the raw implacability of the man are unmistakable every time he pads menacingly into the frame. Those two dominate the movie throughout, although Anthony Steel (Ekberg’s husband at the time) has a sympathetic albeit frequently ineffectual role as the preacher who is drawn to the troubled Valerie. While he appears slight next to Hayden’s brooding massiveness he also brings a sense of calm and culture, providing something of a counterweight to the simmering passions all around him.

Valerie was released on DVD  in the US by MGM years ago and I think it turns up online regularly too. It looks like an open matte transfer as there is generally some empty space at the top of the screen visible, but that’s not a major issue and the image is satisfyingly sharp and clean. This is not a film that gets mentioned very often, even among film fans, and I feel it is worthy of a bit more attention. It offers a different spin on the traditional western, blending in melodrama, courtroom suspense and some frank yet unobtrusive social commentary. All in all, it offers a satisfying hour and twenty minutes of viewing and there’s the added benefit that it throws in a little food for thought. My advice is to keep an eye out for it.

45 thoughts on “Valerie

  1. Another one for the list! Thanks as always. Hayden is always worth a look. Never, ever come across this. I have seen Oswald’s later film with Ekberg, SCREAMING MIMI, which was a great dramatic role for her but not much a movie (the Fredric Brown novel got fairly mangled in the filming). Oswald’s best work was probably on THE OUTER LIMITS.

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  2. An interesting choice for review, Colin. I saw “VALERIE” in the last couple of years and it didn’t make a particular impression on me so perhaps a re-watch is required.
    That said, I appreciate Sterling Hayden the more I see him, whether it be westerns, war films or crime/noir. His rugged masculinity was ideal for those genres.
    I’ve also always quite liked Anthony Steel in his British films of the 1950s.

    Gerd Oswald was an interesting director. He didn’t make that many features, spending much of his career in TV, but the films he did make were usually taut and gripping albeit low in budget mostly. His first, “A KISS BEFORE DYING” was probably also his most successful but I rather like “FURY AT SHOWDOWN”, “THE BRASS LEGEND” & “CRIME OF PASSION” (also with Hayden).

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    • I have copies of all those Oswald films you mention bar Fury at Showdown and I’d quite forgotten it was made by him till you brought it up.
      Re Steel: I tend to think of him in supporting roles, albeit good ones, such as in Harry Black and the Tiger. I picked up a copy of The Planter’s Wife, which had another supporting part for him, just the other day.

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  3. Agreed this does not get any mention often and is mostly forgotten after viewing. Saw this due to the presence of Sterling Hayden and Anita Ekberg. Your views are noted.

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    • Sometimes we talk about reevaluation but here we have a movie which appears to have slipped through the net and had little of any kind of evaluation. I believe it’s worth more than that.

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  4. Sounds an intriguing film, Colin, with its use of multiple perspectives on the killing and its social commentary about immigrants on the frontier. Well done courtroom dramas always get me in and, like others above, I always find Hayden worth watching. I’m adding it to the wish list.

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    • I enjoyed it, Steve. I liked the attempt to do something a little different with the western formula but it may not please everyone. I’m pretty sure it can be accessed online for anyone wishing to sample it.

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  5. Colin
    An interesting write-up of another western I have never seen. I am not even sure I ever even heard of it. Of course it must go on the must see list. Hayden is always a reason to see a film. Miss Ekberg on the other hand,, while pleasing to look at, has never struck me as any sort of competent actress. I of course need to admit I have not seen many of her films. She did show a flash of skill in PICKUP ALLEY now that I think of it.

    Now that you have mentioned it, and after a quick look at the TCM listings, I see that BACK FROM ETERNITY is on next Wed. The recording device is set to copy. As Jerry brought up, several of director Gerd Oswald’s films, CRIME OF PASSION and A KISS BEFORE DYING have both been seen by yours truly. Thanks for the heads up here on VALERIE.
    Gord..

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  6. Jerry and Walter
    You were right about THE SMALLEST SHOW ON EARTH.. A nice charming little comedy that puts a smile on one’s face. The whole cast hit their spots perfectly.

    Gord

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  7. Weekend watching…

    First up is the 1959 Blake Edwards directed comedy, OPERATION PETTICOAT, with Cary Grant and Tony Curtis. Then I’ll take a stab at Nicholas Ray’s 1949 noir, KNOCK ON ANY DOOR. Bogart, John Derek and George Macready headline.

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  8. Off topic
    Just wondering about the rest of you good people around the world. I had my 2nd Covid shot today. At last that problem is taken care of. Hopefully now I can my knees worked on! Any one having trouble getting the shots?
    Gord

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    • Glad to hear you got your second vaccination at last, Gord. We had ours a while back now and should get a booster in September along with the annual flu shot.
      This is one thing the British government did get right!

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    • I’ll chime in. I’m in the camp with nearly half of health care practitioners……no vax for me. If infected, I will rely on my immune system and hydroxychloroquine therapy.

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  9. Here in Australia, the slow roll out of vaccinations is a major political issue. However, we also have a low rate of COVID infections, so we’re getting away with the slow vaccinations so far. I’ve had my first jab – my age group must have the AstraZeneca product which can cause serious side effects in younger people and seems less protective against the virus than Pfizer. Best wishes to all out there for ready access to an effective vaccine.

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  10. Some Robert Mitchum films are putting in an appearance on cable here in the next bit. Some I have seen, like, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE and PURSUED. Others I have heard of, but never seen, such as, BANDIDO 57, and THE WRATH OF GOD 73. What do you fine bunch of people think of the last two titles? Good? Bad? So so?

    On a side note,
    A couple of months ago I finished Lee Server’s great book on Mitchum, “Baby I Don’t Care” and found it a wonderful read..

    Gordon

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  11. This weekend’s viewing…
    First up will be 1937s TOPPER with Cary Grant, Constance Bennett and Roland Young.
    Second will be, COP LAND from 97 with Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta and S. Stallone.
    Then a few episodes of HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL.

    Have a great weekend all.

    Gord

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