The Jayhawkers

Let’s start by looking at a list. Ride Lonesome, Rio Bravo, Last Train from Gun Hill, Day of the Outlaw, Face of a Fugitive, The Wonderful Country, The Hanging Tree, Warlock, No Name on the Bullet, These Thousand Hills. What do all these movies have in common? Well two things actually – they are all great westerns and they are all from 1959. The quality of those ten films is beyond doubt and while it’s arguably unfair and perhaps even pointless to make comparisons, it’s difficult not to do so when one realizes that The Jayhawkers also came out in 1959. Now it is not a bad film but it is a distinctly mediocre one, and that mediocrity is all the more apparent when one pauses and looks at that list above. Considering the heights the genre had scaled at that stage this feels like a minor effort indeed.

The Jayhawkers is set in Kansas in the period leading up to the Civil War. It concerns itself with machinations, manipulation and low-level empire building, these being the elements which frame in it in a wider context. On a more intimate level, and from my perspective a more engaging one, the film looks at issues of trust, betrayal and responsibility. Cam Bleeker (Fess Parker) has just broken out of jail, and is first seen wounded and exhausted, dragging his broken and bloody body back to the homestead he once shared with his wife. He has escaped because he’s heard his wife has died and, logically, wants to learn the truth. What he finds though is Jeanne Dubois (Nicole Maurey), a widowed Frenchwoman, and her two children living on what was his land. For a time, as he recovers from his wounds, it looks as though this is going to develop into a tale of a man reconnecting with the world and discovering something worthwhile via a surrogate family. That’s not to be, however, not for Bleeker and not for the audience either. In short, he is recaptured and offered a deal by the Governor to infiltrate the Jayhawkers, a gang of raiders led by one Luke Darcy (Jeff Chandler). What is the motivation? Well, it appears that Darcy was responsible for the debasement and death of Bleeker’s wife after his imprisonment, so we’re talking a classic revenge scenario. Yet it doesn’t quite develop in the way one might imagine; the revenge aspect is brushed aside in a perfunctory manner and the story evolves instead into an examination of the perils of rampant demagoguery as well as raising questions about the extent of personal loyalty.

With writing credits for director Melvin Frank as well as Frank Fenton, A I Bezzerides and Joseph Petracca, the political chicanery which underpins the story is frankly glossed over, the whole business of false flag tactics and the risks arising out of the cult of personality influence the development of the story but never overtake it. The focus throughout remains on the relationship which grows up between Bleeker and Darcy, and how that affects not only the fortunes of the two men but also those of Jeanne Dubois and her children. This is the area where I feel the movie falters, especially the writing of the character of Bleeker. Right from the beginning there is a feeling that he failed his wife, his imprisonment and consequent lack of support being a factor that led to her becoming involved with Darcy and all that followed on from that. Be that as it may, his determination then to make up for this would suggest a redemptive path, but it turns out to be one he treads for only a brief time. Instead, he finds himself first shamed by Darcy’s direct admission of his own culpability before being won over by the drive and ambition of his supposed enemy. Basically, the man set up as the hero at the center of the tale comes across as incredibly fickle and easily swayed. This is problematic enough, but what is worse is his inability to provide protection for those he professes to care about. He leaves Jeanne Dubois to fend for herself for much of the running time and, crucially, is absent when she is assaulted and abused by Darcy’s principal enforcer (Henry Silva). On top of that, he is indirectly responsible for serious injuries sustained by Jeanne’s little girl in the course of a botched raid.

If the writing of the character of Bleeker is less than satisfactory, the performance of Fess Parker is what I’d term adequate. He’s fairly one-note throughout, giving little sense of the conflict and complexity the role requires. What saves the picture is Jeff Chandler as the man who would be king of Kansas. It is a typically intense and authoritative piece of work from Chandler, blending messianic zeal, ruthlessness and flashes of down-to-earth humanity to create a far more interesting figure than the nominal hero. He is supposed to be a character one is never quite sure of and I think that aspect is communicated quite successfully. Nicole Maurey is fine too as the woman trying to build a new life and offer some kind of security to her children. In supporting roles, Henry Silva is as sly and menacing as one could hope for while Leo Gordon’s sidekick is jittery, anxious, and ultimately doomed.

Olive Films released The Jayhawkers on both Blu-ray and DVD some years ago and it looks pretty good for the most part although there are scratches and some print damage. It is an odd film though, the themes it contains are weighty yet the handling of them isn’t all that successful nor is it as assured as it ought to be, and I’m not altogether convinced Melvin Frank and Norman Panama were the right team to have behind a story like this. The entire movie creates an impression of wanting to be big and grand, partially fueled by a terrific Jerome Moross score that recalls his work on The Big Country, but it contrives to look and feel much more restricted. All told, it entertains and passes the time, benefiting from a strong and energetic turn from Jeff Chandler. Still, bearing in mind the other genre offerings produced that year it is somewhat disappointing.

The Paradine Case

A Hitchcock film. This is a term which has become one of those key items of vocabulary common to all film fans. The director’s name is, I think it’s fair to say, universally recognized, which is no mean feat in itself when one remembers that he died over forty years ago and released his last feature a few years before that. In his lifetime and beyond the label “the master of suspense” was often applied, and it remains a fairly accurate descriptor. Is it a trifle restrictive though? Does it narrow the focus of his work too much? Perhaps. And perhaps it might be fairer, albeit admittedly lacking in poetry, zing, or just plain catchiness, to think of the Hitchcock film as a study of the moral dilemma. After all, his best works all present a range of ethical conundrums which both audiences and protagonists are tasked with navigating. While The Paradine Case (1947) is unlikely to figure in anyone’s list of best Hitchcock films, it does have some points of interest.

A beautiful young woman is accused of the murder of her blind husband and the barrister engaged to lead the defense becomes increasingly infatuated by her. That, in a nutshell, is the plot of The Paradine Case. By the time the film opens Colonel Paradine is dead. It feels somehow appropriate that a man who was unable to see, and whose life and death hold so much influence over the fate of the main characters, should himself remain unseen, save for the portrait which appears in the early scenes. As much as this is a Hitchcock film it is also a Selznick film and his presence hovers over proceedings just as the spirits of certain characters in his productions seemed to  haunt others. If this is a theme affecting a number of Selznick pictures, it is perhaps understandable as the man himself appears to have been haunted by earlier successes and was so often looking over his shoulder at those ghosts of his own past in an effort to reclaim them. Although it is a very different movie, there is something of the aura of Rebecca to be found, as if the tendrils of mist drifting and curling around the drive approaching Manderley continue to cling. Some of that comes from the familiarity of aspects of Franz Waxman’s score and the set of Mrs Paradine’s bedroom in the country retreat looking a lot like that of Rebecca’s. The past is never far from these characters lives, it may be frequently referred to obliquely but is always there in the shadows.

Whatever one may or may not think about the myriad theories propounded by critics, observers and biographers over the years regarding Hitchcock himself, there is no question that the characters peopling his tales of suspense and crisis are beset by their own obsessions. In The Paradine Case Anthony Keane (Gregory Peck) is instantly bewitched by the cool, enigmatic beauty of his client. From the very first meeting he is entranced, his gaze fixed and his heart effortlessly purloined, the course of the case, his career and his marriage will be indelibly marked by the experience. It is an extraordinarily unsympathetic role though; the man is pompous and a prig, so dazzled by Mrs Paradine (Alida Valli) that he is both oblivious of how appalling his behavior is and staggeringly insensitive to how hurtful it is. We the viewers can see it in the awkwardness of those around him, in the uncomfortable pauses, in the cringing displays of petulance. Yet Keane himself sees none of it, he has in essence become the second blind man in Mrs Paradine’s life, morally if not physically sightless and wholly unaware of the emotional devastation his actions are wreaking.

The entire picture is of course dominated by another “blind” figure, that of justice herself standing aloof atop the Old Bailey, remote and apart from the desperate passions being enacted in the chambers below. Is justice finally served at the end of it all? The viewer can decide that; for my part, I think perhaps only partially so as the verdict returned is clearly correct but the “rightness” of certain other consequences brought about both before and after this is moot. The murder that sets the whole train of events in motion is really a variation on Hitchcock’s MacGuffin, being of the utmost importance to the characters on screen but of lesser significance to the audience. We are naturally interested in seeing how it will resolve itself, but I’d argue the answer is never in serious doubt and the greater interest is inspired by the personal and ethical crisis which Keane experiences and the way it unfolds (or maybe unravels might be a more accurate term under the circumstances) in a packed courtroom. Peck was quite young at this point but he seems to be playing older with the greying hair and vaunted reputation indicating a man approaching, if not already in, middle age. There are references made by his wife (Ann Todd) to the way he has changed since his idealistic youth and just about every action is suggestive of someone having a mid-life crisis, someone seeing cages and bars all around, besotted by the unattainable Mrs Paradine and driven jealous to the point of mania by what he regards as a younger rival in the shape of Louis Jourdan’s intense valet.

The eye of the storm throughout is Alida Valli’s unknowable widow. Her composure and control are remarkable and Lee  Garmes uses his characteristic skill to light and photograph her striking features in such a way as to heighten this aspect. This makes it very clear how she is able to cast a spell over every man she encounters, but it also has the effect of distancing her too much – by the end she has been characterized as saint, sinner and demon all rolled into one but I don’t think much of that conveys itself to the audience in any meaningful way. The impression created of her as representing all things to all men is so strong that none of it feels authentic. In combination with Peck’s unsympathetic lead, this has the effect of creating a hollow at the heart of the picture. When a movie trades heavily on the emotional tides pulling and driving its characters this way and that, it amounts to a serious flaw.

Both Ann Todd and Louis Jourdan fare better, the latter as the wife who is at first bemused and then later steely and determined as she realizes that she has a fight on her hands. Hers is one of the more genuine performances in the movie, her role being easy to understand and drawing sympathy precisely because it is clear she wouldn’t dream of asking for it. One could say it is a very “British” performance, deriving power and feeling from its restraint. Louis Jourdan, on the other hand, simmers with self-disgust. He is a mass of conflicting emotions in and out of the witness box, anger, indignation and shame all call to him simultaneously before eventually consuming him.

Charles Laughton was an actor who could practically eat a film alive, and came awfully close to doing so in Jamaica Inn, his previous collaboration with Hitchcock. The Paradine Case gave him a smaller part, but a juicy one nonetheless and his sardonic and spiteful  judge makes for an interesting comparison with the very different jurist he would essay for Billy Wilder a decade later in Witness for the Prosecution. Ethel Barrymore, playing his wife, turns in one of those fey, affected performances she was so adept at, clinging fearfully to the fraying threads of her own sanity. When she witters despairingly to her husband about how callous the years have made him it is hard not to imagine some foreshadowing of the path life has in store for Peck and Todd.  Also among the supporting cast are Charles Coburn and Joan Tetzel as Peck’s solicitor friend and his coolly perceptive daughter. Finally, there are small parts for Hitchcock regulars Leo G Carroll and John Williams.

I am of the opinion that there is no genuinely bad Hitchcock film between The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 and Torn Curtain in 1966, while there are a number of undoubted classics as well as a few masterpieces in there. Sure some of the others are weaker and less successful and I’ll admit there are one or two which I do not like all that much. The Paradine Case is one of those frustratingly weak efforts. It looks sumptuous, has a superb cast and a premise brimming with potential. Yet the finished product is less than the sum of its parts and proves disappointing overall, failing to engage as fully as one would hope. Personally, I believe the blame can be placed on the writing – and Selznick seems to have been responsible for much of this – where the courtroom scenes are lacking in sparkle and snap and the portrayal of the leads saps all sympathy. In the final analysis, while it is certainly worth watching and has its moments this is a mediocre film that, had circumstances been slightly different, might have been a great one.

Kings Go Forth

There are simple, straightforward war movies, there are also films which see their stories played out against a backdrop of war, and then there are what I can only describe as genre hybrids. Kings Go Forth (1958) is one of those hybrids; it is not a full on war movie, meaning the plot is not driven solely, or even principally, by the battle scenes or the military strategy, yet these aspects are not relegated to the merely incidental either. In brief, it is a movie dealing with personal and social conflicts, all presented within the wider framework of the latter stages of the Second World War.

Not all wars are created equal, are they? While D-Day and the invasion of Northern France grabbed the headlines, and continues to garner attention, it is easy to forget that the drama and tragedy of WWII was also being played out in other theaters. Kings Go Forth unfolds in the south of the country where the US forces are in the process of trying to clear out the remaining pockets of Nazi resistance. Sam Loggins (Frank Sinatra) is a lieutenant in need of a new radio operator for his outfit. His voice-over narration in these early scenes make it clear that Britt Harris (Tony Curtis), the man who talks his way into the role, is a figure who will loom large in the subsequent events. He is brash and cocky, sure of himself yet essentially unknowable to others. Right from the beginning, Sam is aware that what is presented is largely a facade, an image offered up for public consumption with the goal of ensuring that what Britt wants, Britt gets. An apparently contradictory figure, he joined the army only as a last resort, having tried to bribe the draft board, but is not averse to indulging in showy heroics – dragging wounded men from a treacherous minefield, or braving machine gun fire to neutralize a pillbox. In short, as Sam himself noted at the outset, he is a man you notice. Well, it takes all kinds to make a world and the various peculiarities of character need not trouble anyone too much. Or that’s the way it seems for a time.

While these two central characters are shown  in sharp relief, the contrast only becomes an issue with the arrival on the scene of Monique (Natalie Wood). She was born an American, brought to Europe by her parents as a child, and is now practically a Frenchwoman. When Sam chances upon her during an impromptu leave he is smitten on the spot. He sees her again, and falls a little further, and all the while Monique remains half a step removed, charming and charmed yet cool. An evening in a cafe, where the wine and jazz form a potent cocktail has Britt meeting this pair, and so the final decisive point of the triangle is fixed in place. By the by, the reason for Monique’s reticence is revealed to be largely the product of her uncertainty of how Americans will react to her mixed race heritage. Sam is gradually accepting of this, having first forced himself to confront the prejudices he once entertained, but Monique finds herself dazzled by the glamor Britt seems to represent. In the end, the story boils down to a question of character and how it manifests itself. On an evening that promises death or glory deep in the enemy’s stronghold, truth emerges as the victor, but it is perhaps a bitter victory.

It has been some time since I last featured a movie from Delmer Daves. Over the years, I have developed a deep appreciation of this director and I count him among one of my favorites. His sympathetic handling of multifaceted and flawed characters caught up in situations which were correspondingly complex shows great maturity and I find his reluctance to sit in judgement enormously refreshing. Characters may be idealized by others within their world, but the viewer is presented with them as they are rather than as we might wish them to be. There is something soulful yet reassuring in the frank admission of imperfection and frailty; this is a filmmaker who not only understood but embraced humanity and sought to celebrate all its aspects. For me, such characteristics define the artist.

Kings Go Forth came in the middle of a particularly productive period in Frank Sinatra’s screen career. Some Came Running, The Joker is Wild and Pal Joey were all made in and around this time. It’s a fine performance, restrained, largely dialed down and frequently internalized. There is a good deal of pain in Sam Loggins, a hard-bitten personal diffidence riding side by side with a professional assurance, a tricky balance to achieve. I very much appreciate how the easy option of having the leading man simply do the right thing without thought was avoided, how he was made to look his own racial prejudices square in the face and acknowledge them for what they were. Perhaps we’re not talking redemption in the classical sense, but it is a matter of decency won after a hard battle, and the ending of the movie, in all its bittersweet melancholy and tantalizing optimism, is all the better for it. Nor is Natalie Wood asked to play any one-dimensional angel. Her hunger for acceptance draws her deep into a damaging and worthless relationship, blinding her to the artifice which is burrowing its way into her heart. It is an honest piece of work and, as with all forms of honesty, not always attractive. Tony Curtis is well cast too, coasting along on looks, style and polished patter, but never able to completely sell the lie to himself. As he sits in the clock tower with Sinatra, feeling the chill breath of fate creeping closer, his openness about his complete absence of character is very well realized – to watch him at this moment is to watch a man gazing deep within himself, and being appalled at the emptiness that he discovers. And finally, a word for Leora Dana, who is characteristically touching as Wood’s mother. If the only movies she had ever made were this one, 3:10 to Yuma and Some Came Running, then it would still constitute a fine career.

Kings Go Forth was an early release on DVD by MGM and looked good enough even though it was presented open-matte. There was a Blu-ray release by Twilight Time but I think that’s been out of print for some time now. However, there is a fine Blu-ray available in Germany, English-friendly, widescreen and generally very attractive. I freely admit that I am an unashamed fan of the work of Delmer Daves and I am well aware that this may color my view of his films. That said, I think Kings Go Forth is a terrific little movie and it comes highly recommended.