Harry Black and the Tiger

What should one aim for in life, passion or contentment? Ultimately, that is the question posed by Hugo Fregonese’s Harry Black and the Tiger (1958). The answer which is proposed is one heavily influenced by notions of honor, both honor earned and honor bestowed, and there is something very fine about the means through which this accommodation of heart and conscience is arrived at in the movie.

India, a vast country filled with sound and color; the opening sequence presents both as the camera roams through forest and grassland, accompanied by the chattering of monkeys, the susurration of parched vegetation, pierced violently by the screams of alarm and the final shocking spilling of blood. The beauty and the terror of nature are encapsulated succinctly in that scene, one which establishes the threat posed by the presence of a man-eating tiger. This hasn’t been the first outrage, nor will it be the last, but the district authorities have already taken steps to ensure the killer is stopped. To that end, another killer has been employed, one Harry Black (Stewart Granger). Harry is a former soldier, an officer in the British army who lost a leg after being wounded during an escape from a German POW camp in the last war. He now makes his living hunting down and killing those aforementioned man-eaters. In the course of stalking his prey, Harry comes upon Desmond Tanner (Anthony Steel) and his wife Christian (Barbara Rush), both of whom have played significant roles in his life. Desmond is the old friend whose fear and lack of nerve cost Harry his leg, while Christian had aroused forbidden passions within his heart during a brief visit to Scotland. All of this is told via a couple of flashbacks as Harry recuperates from the wounds he suffers in a botched attempt to shoot the tiger, a near tragedy once again resulting from Desmond’s weakness. This is the point at which Harry is himself cornered, maneuvered by fate and circumstance into a position requiring him to make potentially life-changing decisions, and forcing those around him to do the same.

In a sense, Harry Black and the Tiger is a very straightforward story, one which can be approached as simply a blend of exotic adventure and romantic drama. However, as with all good movies,there is a great deal of depth should one wish to seek it out. As I stated above, it raises the issue of what one wants out of life, and thus which path will have to be followed. The focus is on three less than satisfied people: Harry, Desmond and Christian. Harry is the one most conspicuously disillusioned, making a living from death and burying himself in the wilds a world away from his home. Something similar could be said for Christian and Desmond, the former claiming to have reached a place of contentment but quite clearly still haunted by regret, while her husband is weighed down by the dreadful burden of his own inadequacy. The dilemma facing this trio stems from the fact that the prize of fulfillment for any one of them threatens to cast the others into despair.

The role of Harry Black was a comfortable fit for Stewart Granger at this stage of his career, making good use of that quality of jaded introspection he was able to tap into. There is a telling moment during his convalescence when departing nurse Kamala Devi says: “Good luck with the tigers, Mr Black… inside and out.” Prior to this we have been viewing both the tiger and Harry, hunter and hunted (though which one occupies which role may be open to debate) wounded, recuperating and recovering. As I see it, the tiger is a reflection of Harry, or maybe a reflection of the predator lurking within, that formidable and potentially destructive power he carries inside him. It is a power which threatens to consume him because in recognizing the need to harness it and trap it Harry is steadily and ruthlessly tearing his own being apart.

What follows is a personal crisis for Harry, one brought on by the clash of desire, conscience and regret, leading to a kind of temporary moral surrender. In his physically and emotionally vulnerable state, he gives in to all those fears he had repressed and rejected, retreating into a whisky-fogged breakdown. His rescue is effected by the joint efforts of his friend Bapu (a terrific piece of comic/philosophical acting by I S Johar) and his soulmate Christian. Barbara Rush is characteristically impressive not only as the woman who has captured the hearts and of two quite different men but also as the devoted mother – her every move essentially a juggling act alternating between the call of head and heart, duty and desire. Nevertheless, his ultimate salvation lies in his own hands, his release can only be achieved by confronting his own demons. In essence, he must face down the tiger, he must face himself. Having done so, perhaps the greatest sacrifice of all must still be made.

This builds into the climactic scene of the movie, one which sees Granger, Rush and Steel all shine. After triumphing over nature, both in a broader and also in a more intimate sense, Granger returns to collect the reward he feels is now to be his. It is here that the choice between passion and contentment will be made, and it’s to the credit of the performers, director Fregonese and that ever masterful writer Sydney Boehm that there are no emotional pyrotechnics on display to blunt the effect. Instead, we get a beautifully judged and sensitively handled vignette where little is said explicitly yet much is conveyed subtly and surreptitiously via glance and gesture. The resolution is bittersweet yet gratifying in its inevitability and appropriateness.

Harry Black and the Tiger is a 20th Century Fox movie and was released on DVD in the UK almost a decade ago. That disc, which I understand is now out of print, was pretty good for the time. The anamorphic CinemaScope transfer still stands up quite well today but there is no denying that it is the kind of picture that would benefit from the higher resolution offered by Blu-ray. Of course the chances of Fox titles making it to Blu-ray these days are, shall we say, slim. This is the third film by Hugo Fregonese I’ve featured on the site this year and I find it is always a pleasure to view and write about his work, especially a strong effort such as this. Harry Black and the Tiger is film I have seen multiple times over the years and one I hope more people get the opportunity to become familiar with.

As an aside, yesterday it was 14 years to the day since I published my first tentative blog post. The site has evolved a bit since then, and I hope I have too, but it continues to be a pleasure and privilege to have interacted with such a wide range of movie lovers. Thanks all.

Band of Angels

“You talk about freedom. You think I’ve got freedom? I’ve got a past I’d like to forget, but I can’t run away from it. No more than you can run away from what you are.”

The essence of that piece of dialogue, if not the exact words, forms the bedrock of many a drama. As with a fly trapped in amber, cinematic drama gives us a moment captured on celluloid, preserved for our scrutiny, superficially isolated in time. Yet those moments we return to with every successive viewing give the lie to that; the poignancy or power of each example exists and is dependent on what came before, and on the suggestion of where it might lead. The latter is necessarily unknowable in the majority of cases, as in life. And as in life, the former, the touch and influence, perhaps even the bonds represented by the past, helps to shape the course of the present. Band of Angels (1957) explores this eternal link between that which has been and that which is; it is the collision of past and present, presented within the emotive framework of racial conflict and prejudice, which adds a timeless quality to the film’s core themes.

It seems appropriate that a movie so concerned with the idea of straining against the shackles of one’s former life should begin with the image of two slaves stumbling in desperation across a Kentucky plantation with overseers and hounds in hot pursuit. Flash forward some years and the daughter of the plantation owner Amantha Starr (Yvonne De Carlo) returns to attend the funeral of her father. It is at this point that her ordered and structured world is rent asunder, the significance of her mother’s grave being in a different section of the plantation brought home with jarring force as she learns that not only is she of mixed race but that the status she once took for granted is now forfeit. Instead she is now to be designated as property, denied full human dignity and sold as one might sell some personal belongings. Driven to the point of suicide by the shock and horror of what lies before her, this woman is thrown what at first appears to be an unlikely lifeline. She is bought by  Hamish Bond (Clark Gable), a wealthy man who installs her in his household under somewhat unusual terms. In truth, his domestic arrangements are generally unusual; his housekeeper (Carolle Drake) and his assistant Rau-Ru (Sidney Poitier) both have a complex, and in the latter’s case a volatile relationship with Bond. As the country lurches into the chaos and tumult of the Civil War, the nature of these varied relationships will be tested, torn and reshaped by the trauma of conflict, and the truths about the past lives of all the principals must be dragged under the spotlight to be confronted and addressed if freedom in any real sense is to be secured.

On one level Band of Angels can be approached as an examination of the Civil War and the racial conflicts that surround it, and this is certainly the aspect that is immediately recognizable. However, to dwell on that alone would make for a superficial reading of the movie, marrying it to the concerns of a bygone era in a way that distances it and so waters down the impact. Of course the period setting grounds the story and affords it an historical and practical value, but I would argue that this acts as a conduit for the deeper, more constant message concerning the probing of the past and the absorption of its lessons, thus allowing the future to be met with hope. All through the story the past is revisited, either implicitly via the lewd whispered reminiscences of a slave girl (a bit part for Juanita Moore and radically different to her famous role in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life), or explicitly in the returns to various locations. Perhaps one of the most telling of these occurs when De Carlo finds herself back in the New Orleans house she first came to before the war – the structure is still there and she is even wearing the same costume but the fighting has brought significant changes, not only in terms of atmosphere (beautifully rendered by the subtle shifts in lighting by Lucien Ballard) but also personnel. There is considerable irony in both the fact that Poitier is seated in the chair once occupied by Gable and the way the passage of time has affected his attitudes.

The movie could have settled for some trite commentary on the way authority corrupts, or perhaps the dangers of becoming that which one despises. However, the central theme is much more engaging and forward looking. That theme, filtered through the prism of racial tension, is one of achieving growth and progression on a personal level, and I guess by extension on a wider societal level, not by cutting off or artificially isolating the past though; rather, it is about reaching an accommodation with what came before, whereby some emotional equilibrium may be attained.

The cast is strong and well chosen but Clark Gable dominates it all. There is much to appreciate in Gable’s late career performances, that indomitable spirit tempered by experience and loss was powerfully effective given the right material. Of his three collaborations with Raoul Walsh, only The King and Four Queens feels disposable and both Band of Angels and The Tall Men are fine movies. There are, to my mind, a number of standout scenes that give him an opportunity to shine. The first takes place in the courtyard of his New Orleans house and is almost stolen by a flamboyant Torin Thatcher. With a storm brewing in the background and Thatcher grandstanding for all he’s worth, Gable sinks into brooding intensity as the ghosts of his youth come scratching at his conscience. Next, when confronted by Patric Knowles’ craven braggart who is spoiling for a duel, he burrows mercilessly into the other man’s insecurities to destroy him psychologically. Later, after supervising the systematic torching of his own plantation, he delves deep into his own tortured past to explain to De Carlo why there can be no marriage between them. The matter-of-fact way he narrates the horrors he both saw and participated in is superbly delivered, as he sits ragged and spent amid the tarnished splendor his actions bought for him. Finally, there is the climactic confrontation with Poitier, the latter consumed with righteous hatred and hungry for retribution. It builds terrifically, with Gable’s calm resignation lulling both the viewer his co-star before the hugely satisfying resolution arrives. It’s a wonderfully played scene, a credit to the skills of Poitier and Gable.

Warner Brothers released a very attractive DVD of Band of Angels quite a few years ago and it still holds up well. My impression is that Raoul Walsh’s antebellum melodrama enjoys a mixed critical reputation at best. Personally, I rate it highly and regard it as one of the director’s best later works. There are those who say Walsh was a great action director, and there’s truth in that assertion. However, he was much more than that, he was a great observer and director of human drama, and this is a movie which has more than its fair share of that quality.

Utah Blaine

It has been some time since any guest posts have appeared on the site. Well, seeing as I find myself in need of a bit of a breather just now I’m pleased to have Gordon Gates step up to highlight a briskly entertaining 1950s western.

I thought it was time to offer you good folks a western with RTHC favorite Rory Calhoun, Utah Blaine (1957). This lower budget western film was produced by Sam Katzman’s Clover Productions and released through Columbia Pictures. The film stars Rory Calhoun as gunslinger Mike “Utah” Blaine. The supporting cast includes, Paul Langton, Max Baer, Ray Teal, George Keymas, Ken Christy and pretty as a picture, Susan Cummings.In this one, Calhoun gets himself mixed up with a range war between some long time ranchers, and a gang of vigilantes. The vigilantes, led by Ray Teal, want the big ranches broken up into smaller holdings. Teal has hired himself a slew of fast guns and various other assorted trash types to help him. He promises the men all ranches of their own.Calhoun just happens on a man, Ken Christy, who these said vigilantes have left hanging from a tree. Calhoun cuts the man down after the gang left. Christy is still alive and thankful for Calhoun saving his life. Once he finds out that Calhoun is a known fast gun, he offers to pay him for help. Christy also offers a nice slice of range and a 1,000 head of cattle. Calhoun has always wanted a place of his own and agrees.Calhoun is soon knee deep in fist fights, shoot-outs and horse chases, both as the pursuer. and the pursued’  Most of the local townsfolk are too afraid to stand up to Teal and his mob of hired guns. Calhoun does manage to get some help from a pal he knew from years before, Paul Langton. Langton is also handy in the big iron area with his six-gun, as well as a huge double-barreled shotgun he hauls around. Max Baer, a local, also joins in with Calhoun.
In the mix here is the gorgeous Susan Cummings. Miss Cummings is the owner of another of the bigger spreads around the area. She has just buried her father who was murdered by Teal and his bunch. She is soon helping Calhoun and company with food and a place to hide. Of course Miss Cummings and our man Calhoun take a shine to each other.For Calhoun, the fight becomes very personal when he finds that gunman, George Keymas, is among Teal’s men. It seems that Keymas had sold Calhoun out to the Mexican Federales, when the two had been on a job south of the border. Calhoun had spent a long stretch in a Mexican prison before finally escaping. He wants a spot of revenge.The local folks finally join up with Calhoun’s mob when Teal tries to murder another local ranch owner, Angela Stevens. They arm up and are waiting in ambush for Teal and his men when they hit town. It looks like a fairly liberal spraying of heavy metal is going to be needed to settle the issue for one side or the other. The viewer knows the boot hill express is going to be busy.
This is a nifty little low renter that zips along in a quick 75 minutes. B-expert, Fred F. Sears, handles the direction here. Sears cranked out about 50 films in his 1949 till 1958 Hollywood career. Sears’ films include, Earth vs the Flying SaucersRumble on the Docks, The 49th Man, Cell 2455 Death Row, and Chicago Syndicate. Sears also helmed Fury at Gunsight Pass which Colin reviewed here a month and a bit back. (Editor’s Note: the Sears title I looked at recently was actually Ambush at Tomahawk Gap)Another B-film veteran, Benjamin H. Kline handles the cinematography. Kline worked on several excellent low-rent film noir such as, Roses Are Red, The Invisible Wall, Jewels of Brandenburg, Treasure of Monte Cristo and Detour.The film is taken from the Louis L’Amour novel of the same name.
Gordon Gates