The Velvet Touch


Guilt, fear and suspicion – these are all key characteristics of film noir. Marry those elements to the duplicity inherent in the world of the theater, where the necessity to don and discard the masks of performance, and the result should be a richly cultured blend of deceit. These circumstances provide a wonderful source of drama and melodrama, one tapped regularly by filmmakers. Sometimes the world of moviemaking itself becomes the main focus, while on other occasions it is the older and grander backdrop of the traditional theater. The latter forms the setting of The Velvet Touch (1948), where ambition, desire and tangled relationships on and off the stage see barbed witticisms replaced by a blunt instrument, resulting in tragedy.

In a sense, the whole movie could be summed up as a shift from comedy to tragedy. The leading lady of the story, and the leading lady of the Broadway production which has just reached the end of its run, is Valerie Stanton (Rosalind Russell). She has earned success and renown as a star in light comedic roles yet that pebble in the shoe of human nature that picks at many a person, and most especially the protagonists of film noir, is present. Yes, dissatisfaction is whispering insistently in Valerie Stanton’s ear, urging her to spread those artistic wings and set off and explore new areas. That alongside a new romantic relationship with an architect Michael Morrell (Leo Genn) is pushing her ever closer to a break with the past. And the break is a clean one when it does come, just as clean and sharp as the blow she strikes her producer and former lover Gordon Dunning (Leon Ames). This is essentially where the viewer comes in, literally in through the window of Dunning’s office, gliding in from the neon lit New York sky to witness the end of a highly strung and threat filled argument, the end of one man’s life and the beginning of a fresh ordeal for others. Shortly afterwards the movie dissolves into a lengthy flashback as Valerie reflects on the circumstances which led, step by relentless step towards this moment of violence. What follows is an investigation into the death conducted by the shrewd and reassuringly portly Captain Danbury (Sydney Greenstreet), an investigation that sees suspicion fall on the devoted but spurned Marion Webster (Claire Trevor). With dread and self-interest setting the pace and driving events into still darker corners of morality, the climactic denouement hints at life imitating art and those lines separating the the performer and the performance becoming blurred once more.

Those blurred lines  recall A Double Life to an extent, but even so I don’t think the similarities run too deep. Sure there’s the theatrical setting and the star, although only towards the very end of the story here, seeing aspects of her personal life and circumstances mirrored in the role she has taken on, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in this case. While The Velvet Touch is a good picture, attractively shot by Joseph Walker from a Leo Rosten (Sleep, My Love) script, it doesn’t have the same depth. That Rosten screenplay has some wonderful dialogue, as sharp and incisive as a scalpel and devilishly funny too; the exchange between Genn and Russell when they first meet at a party and he feigns ignorance of her celebrity is a delight. Some of that may be down to director Jack Gage too. He started out in the business as a dialogue director on  René Clair’s ever charming I Married a Witch as well as Double Indemnity for Billy Wilder. He then fulfilled the same role on  several pretty good melodramas, with Barbara Stanwyck (My Reputation), Bette Davis (A Stolen Life), and Rosalind Russell in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra before landing his one and only credit as a feature film director.

I will have to admit  that I’ve never been a great fan of Rosalind Russell. That said, I do admire her work and in particular I admire what I think of as her courage in embracing certain roles – for example, Joshua Logan’s Picnic sees her throw herself into her character in an extraordinarily challenging way. The part of Valerie Stanton is not an especially attractive one. Admittedly, she is wronged in some respects but her egoism and fealty to her own ambitions, whatever the cost to the innocents around her, is desperately unpleasant. It requires guts and great self-confidence from a performer to undertake such roles, and it is to Russell’s credit that she didn’t shy away from the more unsavory aspects. Claire Trevor rarely disappoints and turned in another excellent piece of work in the same year that she would win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her humiliated moll in John Huston’s Key Largo. She got across the bitterness and hurt of the perennially wronged woman perfectly, bringing a considerable amount of dignity to it all.

I often wish Sydney Greenstreet had made more movies. That imposing physical presence in tandem with his rich and unmistakable voice could be employed with equal success to comedic, dramatic and outright villainous roles. I have seen almost all of the films he appeared in and it is safe to say he enriched every one of those. His entrance in The Velvet Touch is terrific. Moving onto the stage to interview the assembled cast, he at first projects an air of vague menace as he casts a fishy eye over the nervous group in front of him. His gaze shifts then to the pitifully small chair at his disposal as he lowers his bulk with trepidation onto it, and breaks into an avuncular chuckle in full recognition of the absurdity of it all. It is a beautifully played aside, milking the tension expertly before leavening it with some much needed humor. Of the others, Leo Genn is debonair and smooth, Leon Ames is brimming with malice and energy and primed for a deserved fall, Dan Tobin radiates a knowing whimsy as a conceited critic, and Frank McHugh gets another chance to practice his patented puppy dog enthusiasm.

The Velvet Touch has been released on DVD in the UK by Odeon and in the US by Warner Brothers so it should be easy enough to track down. It’s a solid noir melodrama set amid that theatrical milieu that this viewer never tires of and has a handful of strong performances to recommend it. I recommend it.

The Naked Spur on Blu-ray

This is an especially pleasing piece of news and one I’m delighted to pass on. Anthony Mann’s movies with James Stewart rate as some of the finest works in the canon of classic Hollywood westerns. The Naked Spur has been available on DVD for a good many years but always looked a bit indifferent, and it’s a movie which doesn’t deserve to be described in such lackluster terms. Fortunately, and after what feels like a very long wait, it has been announced that the Warner Archive is bringing this important film out on Blu-ray on September 21. It’s a movie I have the highest regard for and I look forward to seeing it looking its best.

I wrote a piece on this film many years ago, which can be found here.

Ambush at Tomahawk Gap

A quick perusal of the active ingredients of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap (1953) – a ghost town, a small group of criminals bound together by greed yet riven by hatred and petty squabbles, a solitary woman, and the ever present threat posed by marauding Apache bands in the surrounding hills – might bring to mind Quantez, which I looked at here earlier in the year. While these shared features are plain to see the two movies are quite distinct; even if I feel Quantez is the better film all round, that is not to say Ambush at Tomahawk Gap is a poor effort. On the contrary, this is a tight, suspenseful and entertaining piece of work.

The quest for revenge is a common cinematic motif, one which can be found across a broad range of genres. Westerns have made use of it extensively, something about the rugged backdrop and the sense that justice is not yet fully forged and must be seized hot from the flames of a still uncivilized land seems to make for a good fit. The opening of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap looks as though the story will lead us once more down this well trodden path, and then it doesn’t. Four men have just been released after serving a sentence in Yuma prison: Egan (David Brian), Kid (John Derek), Doc (Ray Teal), and McCord (John Hodiak). They represent a selection of types from the cold-hearted tough, the green hothead, the weary old-timer, through to the brooding outsider. McCord is the latter, an innocent man who was convicted of a crime he hadn’t committed and who has done another man’s time, the other man being Egan’s brother. At this point you would be forgiven for thinking that the plot is going to focus on the vengeance aspect. However, it’s soon established that McCord is on to a loser on that score, the guilty man having been gunned down for cheating at cards soon after his fall guy took up residence behind bars. No, the quest in this case is for the spoils of the robbery these men did hard time for, cash which has never been recovered and is probably secreted somewhere in the abandoned town of Tomahawk Gap, deep in Apache territory. During the course of the trek to this potential treasure trove, and following a skirmish with a band of hostiles, the four travelers pick up a Navajo woman (Maria Elena Marques) who has been held captive. Her wounding of the Kid leads to a subsequent fit of remorse and a bond, and ultimately a romance, will develop between them. On the other hand, there is no love lost between Egan and McCord, each warily circling the other, with one eye on the possibility of obtaining great riches and the other on an opportunity to eliminate the competition. Predictably perhaps, the tensions and rivalries which have been simmering all along come to the boil in the dust swept saloon and echoing streets of a dead town, one which is soon to claim a few more souls for its ramshackle cemetery.

Quantez owes much to the nuanced performances of Fred MacMurray and Dorothy Malone, and of course to the artistry of Carl E Guthrie’s cinematography. Ambush at Tomahawk Gap doesn’t have those to fall back on but Henry Freulich still produces some remarkable images using filters and gets a lot of value out of the ghost town set. Where Quantez trades heavily on its themes of regret and redemption and the slow burn atmosphere this movie folds in more incident and complications to jazz up the pace, yet there is a redemptive aspect at the back of it all too.  Although Fred F Sears was a fairly prolific director I have to confess that I’m not familiar with much of his work – Earth Vs the Flying Saucers is the only other of his pictures I can recall watching off hand. Anyway, his handling of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap is sound and indeed stylish in places, using interesting setups and getting the most out of his small cast.

John Hodiak took the lead as the wronged man and turns in some good work. I’m not sure the writing did him any favors by having his character switch from being motivated by a desire for justice to a more straightforward and altogether less noble demand for compensation. Still, Hodiak carries it off fine. His chief competitor is David Brian, all brashness and bullying, a one-dimensional demonstration of self-absorption, but, again, that’s how the character is written. John Derek’s Kid is rebellious and quick-tempered as well as being suitably callow and credulous. The only other role I have seen Maria Elena Marques play was opposite Clark Gable in Across the Wide Missouri. That movie saw her taking on a part light on dialogue and she is in a similar position here, on both occasions she gave an accomplished performance. However, some of the best work is done by veteran character actor Ray Teal. Often cast as villains, he always added to the entertainment value of any movie he appeared in. The role of Doc is a sympathetic one, a man who has  learned something from life, who has has become philosophical about his own shortcomings and solicitous when it comes to the welfare of the Kid. Teal brings a touching warmth to his part and it may well be the best of his long career.

It should not be too difficult to locate a copy of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap. It was released as a good looking manufactured on demand DVD in the US and versions have shown up in a number of European countries too. It’s an attractive movie, colorful and offering a welcome balance of interior and exterior work. Personally, I am a fan of such tightly made and self-contained films, the restricted focus often brings out the best in many of those involved and the typically pared down stories mean the pace is necessarily brisk. Ambush at Tomahawk Gap may not be all that well known but I think western fans will find it rewarding.

Seven Thunders

Referring to a film as a war movie probably brings to mind images of large set piece combat scenes, of pitched battles raging across the screen with intensity. Seven Thunders (1957) is a war movie and although it does feature an impressively destructive climactic set piece it is really a story (in truth a series of interlocking and interwoven tales) which is played out against, and given added urgency due to, the backdrop of war and occupation. It combines elements of a thriller, drama, and romance and ultimately ties together all the apparently disparate strands. As such, like all genre pictures, it is able to draw in and blend that which one might more readily associate with a different genre. That said, it perhaps tries to cast its net too far and too wide.

And speaking of casting nets, the opening scene by the dockside in the port of Marseille during the Nazi occupation sees a fishing vessel deposit its latest catch. Along with the bounty yielded by the Mediterranean is a pair of escaped Allied prisoners of war on the latest leg of their journey, having escaped from prison camps in Italy. Dave (Stephen Boyd) and Jim (Tony Wright) are taken to a safe house, somewhere to lie low till they can be shunted further along the line. The principal narrative thread is the experience of these two men, with particular focus on Dave and the street smart  young French girl (Anna Gaylor) he finds himself reluctantly falling in love with. Running parallel to this is the matter of Doctor Martout (James Robertson Justice), on the surface a man who is dedicated to aiding the flight of large numbers of refugees and otherwise doomed individuals, but in reality a cold and utterly ruthless serial murderer. Eventually, these two plot strands converge as the relentless Nazi pressure contrives to force the increasingly restless Jim to seek an alternative means of exiting a neighborhood that is soon to be razed to the ground. As these plotlines creep toward their dramatic confluence, other characters and tales spin out of and around them, adding more layers of both tragedy and comedy. There is the impoverished  intermediary (Eugene Deckers) who unwittingly sends victims to the psychopathic Martout and then finds his own life touched by an unspeakable loss. There is the young Wehrmacht soldier whose lack of lack of judgement, self-confidence and self-control brings about that loss. There is then the Englishwoman (Kathleen Harrison) who provides some much needed comic relief, not least when it is discovered that breaking through her wardrobe leads not to a magical land such as C S Lewis might have imagined but instead to a bordello. So, there is no shortage of incident as events build toward an exciting and satisfying conclusion.

All told, I don’t feel Seven Thunders ranks as one of Hugo Fregonese’s more successful pictures, although there is much to enjoy and appreciate in it and the director does some characteristically strong work. The main story is a compelling one and Fregonese gets the most out of the burgeoning romance between Boyd and Gaylor, capturing the immediacy of wartime relationships and gaining credibility both from the performances and the Marseille locations. On the other hand, the Martout sub-plot feels largely unnecessary – it’s neither poorly executed nor uninteresting, but it feels a little undeveloped in itself and also nudges the principal story aside on occasion. If it’s purpose is to add extra tension to the climax, I’m not sure that is necessary. In terms of linking elements together, the Martout strand fleshes out Eugene Deckers role and that in turn affords greater significance to the shocking and tragic business involving the Wehrmacht soldier. Still, I’d have thought those aspects could have been blended in by  some other means. I guess my criticism would be directed at the writing then as opposed to the direction. That writing derives from a novel by Rupert Croft-Cooke, someone whose work I’m more familiar with under his Leo Bruce pseudonym. Leo Bruce wrote some witty detective fiction and those lighter moments I mentioned involving Kathleen Harrison recall this.

Stephen Boyd was on the cusp of real stardom when Seven Thunders was made. He had recently had a memorable part in the fine thriller The Man Who Never Was and was about to get another good role in Henry King’s The Bravados, as well as prominent parts in some glossy melodramas in Hollywood. Overshadowing all this though would be the plum role as Messala in Wyler’s Ben-Hur. He handles the action scenes very competently, including a rooftop fight with a snooping German and the final escape from the city that is collapsing around his ears. The romantic relationship with Anna Gaylor works well too, there’s a sweetness to it and some chemistry between the players. Tony Wright, who had been cast in the early Hammer picture Bad Blonde / The Flanagan Boy opposite Barbara Payton and then portrayed the villain in Tiger in the Smoke, has less to do but carries it off satisfactorily. I tend to think of James Robertson Justice as primarily a comic actor, for the simple reason that those were the parts I first saw him in. However, he did plenty of dramatic work and I think there is something startlingly effective about seeing actors one associates with lighter work portraying out and out evil characters. I know I got a definite chill from seeing him calmly informing one of his victims of the fate which awaits him.

Kathleen Harrison had a long career, and a long life too, playing some wonderful eccentrics and brings both humor and believability to her turn as the woman who has made a life for herself in the French port. As the proprietress of the adjoining bordello, former dancer Katherine Kath nails the world weariness of her character and seasons it with a dash of knowing levity. In other supporting parts, Eugene Deckers has about his creased features that careworn seediness that is a close cousin to despair and, along with Rosalie Crutchley as his downtrodden wife, deals sensitively and effectively with some of the most touching and heartrending moments in the movie.

There is a UK DVD of Seven Thunders available; while the image is generally clean and attractive I’m not sure about the aspect ratio of the presentation, it may be open matte but I think it looks a little cramped at the sides in some shots. In the final analysis, I would rate this as a movie that works well for the most part despite the fact the script attempts to pack in more story than is strictly necessary.