Lightning Strikes Twice

Melodrama is essentially just emotionally supercharged drama. Somehow it has garnered if not a bad reputation over the years then at the very least one which attracts a degree of critical sneering. Its defining characteristics, those heated and indeed often overheated passions and emotions, seem to embarrass a lot of cultural commentators, leaving them unable to assess the strengths and the draw of melodrama with any sense of proportion, something that rarely occurs with other genres. Would it not be odd to kick a western for featuring gunfights, a horror movie for including monsters, or a comedy for having the effrontery to raise a laugh? Yet there is no shortage of critics jostling for a prime place in the line formed up to sling brickbats at melodrama. As a result, few people want to associate their names or their company’s names with melodrama, preferring to slap another label on the product, one which is perceived as having more marketing clout and thus greater respectability. Lightning Strikes Twice (1951) is without doubt a melodrama, with all the heightened atmosphere and feeling that one would expect. However, I have seen it labeled film noir, which is both a disservice to the movie itself and a misleading descriptor for potential viewers.

The opening scene leads us to Death Row where a man, pacing his cell like some caged beast, awaits the hour of his execution after having been convicted of the murder of his wife. Then right at the last moment, following an oddly flipped situation which sees a priest seeking forgiveness from the condemned man, word comes through that a stay of execution has been granted in order to permit a retrial. It is soon learned that the new trial has ended with a jury split right down the middle and unable to reach a verdict. So Richard Trevelyan (Richard Todd) walks free, and promptly drops out of sight. It is here that the main point of view character is introduced: Shelley Carnes (Ruth Roman) is an actress on sabbatical for health reasons and riding a bus through Texas on her way to a dude ranch. By chance and coincidence, for no melodrama would be worth its name without a liberal sprinkling of both mechanisms, she runs into a middle-aged couple who are keen to extend help and hospitality, for reasons which will be revealed later. The upshot is Shelley winds up on a remote desert road in the middle of a huge downpour and is forced to seek temporary refuge in the first house she spies. The one person in residence, and he has only just arrived, is Trevelyan. As he tells his tale to Shelley, she is not unsympathetic. The story is incomplete though and the viewer, as well as the characters on the screen, is left unsure of exactly what happened.

So is this a film noir? Well no it’s not, and the fact is that, despite some gloriously inky cinematography by Sid Hickox, the script is not so much dark as muddy. It plunges the viewer into a dizzyingly complex set of interlocking, interlinking and interdependent relationships where jealousy, infidelity, despair and yearning all jockey for position. The screenplay by Lenore J Coffee packs in as much emotional tumult and turbulence as possible and the stark, broiling desert setting is a fitting location for it all. The ghost of Trevelyan’s late wife is ever present, haunting both the past and present of everybody involved. As in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, our never seeing this character lends her a power in death that is every bit as malignant as her influence in life is said to have been.

Perhaps there is a bit too much doubt or ambiguity injected into proceedings. The truth is that once one strips away the admittedly well rendered atmospherics the mystery at the heart of the film is not that hard to crack. Still,the direction of King Vidor (Duel in the Sun, Man Without a Star, Ruby Gentry) is a visual delight, exhibiting great style and creativity. He frequently captures characters either in reflection or in frames within frames. The effect here is that the full picture is never allowed to emerge, with something always obscured or placed strategically out of sight. This serves to heighten the sense of unease and suspicion, leaving viewers and characters unsure and feeling forever at a loss.

Both Richard Todd  and Ruth Roman were riding high at this point and getting some plum roles. Todd had just recently received great acclaim for The Hasty Heart and had taken the lead in Hitchcock’s Stage Fright. His career saw him take on a variety of square-jawed heroic parts but he was equally effective in more ambivalent roles too. Coincidentally, Ruth Roman was working with Hitchcock around this time as well, as the leading lady in the superlative Strangers on a Train. I’ve always felt she had an air of toughness about her, and while that quality is discernible here she never allows it to override the innate vulnerability which is essential for her role to make sense. If the careers of Todd and Roman were in the ascendancy, then the same cannot be said for Zachary Scott. His star was on the wane and this would be the  last movie he made at Warner Brothers. His part reflects this decline too, a supporting role at best which sees him only appear in the latter half of proceedings and with just one notable scene – an edgy nighttime drive across the desert with Roman. Mercedes McCambridge gives another masterclass in twitchy, quivering frustration as the owner of the dude ranch  – surely no other actress has been as accomplished at portraying dissatisfied, self-loathing types.

Lightning Strikes Twice is available on DVD via the Warner Archive and the transfer looks quite strong. Personally, I like this movie – the stars, director, genre and overall look and vibe appeal to me. However, I realize this type of thing is not going to work for everybody. Again, I feel it is a real stretch to call this a film noir and anyone approaching it on those terms is likely to come away feeling disappointed and short-changed. Sure it has the look of noir at times and one could say it does pause to light up a smoke and cast a glance down those murky cinematic alleys on occasion but it is melodrama all the way, and an enjoyable example of that genre for those who are happy to embrace it.

Drums Across the River

Revisiting Universal-International westerns is never a chore. While some are undoubtedly more challenging and engaging than others, there is a strong and distinctive visual aesthetic to them all. Add in the polish and pace of a well-oiled production system and there is usually much to savor. Drums Across the River (1954) was the last of three movies Audie Murphy made for director Nathan Juran and it is an enjoyable picture that blends a number of worthwhile themes into the action, although one could argue that there are too many of those themes for a sub-80 minute movie, too many to do full justice to at any rate.

Gary Brannon (Audie Murphy) and his father Sam (Walter Brennan) run a freight business in Colorado, one which is beginning to feel the pinch economically as the mines that had previously been the life blood of Crown City are yielding less and less. Desperate men naturally snatch at whatever straws of hope appear before them and in this case it is the neighboring land occupied by the Ute tribe, land which is known to be rich in gold reserves. This presents the main source of potential conflict in the movie and it is here that we dive into the action as Gary Brannon is about to defy his father and take part in an excursion onto Ute territory organized by Frank Walker (Lyle Bettger). Walker fully expects to encounter trouble, in fact he welcomes and pushes for it as his ultimate goal is to provoke a war with the Utes that will force the army to intervene and deliver the gold into his hands. Well, a skirmish does occur, despite the best efforts of Brannon Sr to broker peace, and the taking of captives by both sides means an exchange is going to have to take place.

It is at this point that another source of conflict arises, one that is crammed with potential. Sadly, this is only partially fulfilled though, as the fact that Gary’s mother was killed by a Ute warrior in the past comes to light. This explains his hatred for the Indians and introduces a needling note between father and son since the older man has come to terms with his loss and grown to respect the tribe and the Chief (Morris Ankrum) who atoned for the killing at great personal expense. The exchange, negotiated by Gary as his father is nursing a wound, sees him alter his perspective and thus the ethical and philosophical sea-change he experiences is effected a little too quickly and too soon. That is not to say it is unconvincing, merely that it robs the picture of the opportunity to delve deeper into a strong and involving theme. What follows is more standard albeit entertaining fare as the focus shifts to a more direct confrontation between Walker and Brannon Jr, where the former is increasingly determined to remove the stone in his shoe that the latter now represents. As such, we get kidnapping, blackmail and a frame-up all interspersed with copious action sequences as we wind our way towards a satisfying if not altogether unexpected conclusion.

Westerns that lean heavily on subterfuge as plot devices need the right people in the villainous roles. Under the circumstances, it is hard to think of anyone better suited to the part of arch puppeteer than the unctuous and Machiavellian Lyle Bettger. His shifty, slippery persona is ideal for the role of Walker and contrasts well with Murphy’s clear countenance and upright demeanor. Murphy himself is never overtaxed but does well, as one would expect, in the action scenes and brings that edgy intensity of his to some of the tougher moments. Walter Brennan is sympathetic as the older man who has made peace with himself and his environment. If anything, he is absent, or held captive by Bettger and his henchmen, for too long and his character’s measured wisdom and innate decency is therefore only sporadically highlighted. And speaking of characters who are not on screen as much as I would like, there is Hugh O’Brian’s sardonic and sadistic black-clad gunslinger. He brings a real sense of stylish menace to his scenes and it is a genuine pity he wasn’t given more to do. Jay Silverheels fares well as the Ute warrior who grows into responsible leadership and his stoic sense of right and justice contrasts markedly with the venality of the villains.

It has been suggested before that women in westerns do not always get as many opportunities to shine or make their mark. Now I’m not convinced that is really true, or least not true enough to be presented as a blanket statement. There are many examples of interesting and pivotal roles for women in the films of Ford, Hawks, Daves, Mann and Boetticher, and this is frequently true of second tier productions as well. Sadly though, this cannot be said for Drums Across the River, where neither Mara Corday as a saloon girl nor Lisa Gaye as the insipid and unnecessary love interest for Murphy are given any chance by the script.

Nathan Juran’s direction of the movie is fine in that he keeps it tight and it’s what I’d term a solid and professional piece of work. Still, it feels a little impersonal. He makes ample use of the studio backlot, which typically looked attractive in most of the movies where it was employed and this is certainly true of the sequence featuring the gallows in the rain, but does get to head out to Red Rock Canyon and San Bernardino for a bit of welcome location work too.

Drums Across the River has had multiple releases on DVD over the years so it ought to be easy enough to track down a copy. I watched the UK release by Simply Media, which has the film looking handsome and colorful in its correct widescreen ratio. Overall, this is a good Audie Murphy western that offers food for thought on Indian-settler relations and presents the Ute as more than just convenient bogeymen. I guess my only complaint would be the fact that the script moves so fast and tries to pack in so much that some the more interesting and worthwhile themes do not have much chance to breathe. Nevertheless, this is a movie that works hard to please and hits the target most of the time.