Impulse

Billy Wilder made The Seven Year Itch in 1955. Twelve months before that, Cy Endfield’s Impulse had a moody Arthur Kennedy longing to scratch the 8 year variety in the UK – perhaps things developed at a more measured pace in Britain in those days, even dissatisfaction. That said, there’s nothing especially slow-moving about the film itself and it has that generally attractive vibe that I find in a lot of Tempean productions.

It all begins with a suitcase, that simple object that signals the beginning or end of a journey, hinting at romance and the tantalizing  promise of escape too. Here though any escape alluded to is of a slightly darker hue. Pretty much everybody in the movie is looking for an out, even those who only gradually come to realize it. Alan Curtis (Arthur Kennedy) is one of those types, an American who hasn’t made it back to the States after the war and has instead married an English girl (Joy Shelton) and settled down to a quiet life in the Shires. The trouble for our unlikely estate agent is that it’s become just a little too quiet, too ordered and altogether too predictable. His wife is off on a trip to town and even the car ride with her to the station reveals the restlessness that’s gnawing away at him; this is a man yearning for a taste of excitement once again, and such men are only a step or two away from trouble. Well that trouble will find him soon enough, a stormy night, a breakdown on a lonely stretch of road, and a glamorous woman in need of assistance is all it takes. That woman is Lila (Constance Smith), a night club chanteuse and the person who will not only lift Curtis out of the rut he’s been grouching about but send him spiraling into a nightmarish world of stolen gems, racketeers and sudden death.

They say you ought to be careful what you wish for, well we all know the punchline to that one I guess. In a way that’s slightly reminiscent of Edward G Robinson’s bored professor in The Woman in the Window, Arthur Kennedy sees an apparently innocent flirtation lead to all kinds of unexpected and potentially ruinous consequences. The idea of an essentially average type stumbling into an increasingly dangerous and bewildering set of circumstances, with  salvation forever near yet forever dancing back into the shadows with a provocatively ironic laugh every time the poor sap is on the point of grasping hold of it, is such an archetypally noir setup. The screenplay is by director Cy Endfield (although the on screen credit reads Charles de Lautour) and Lawrence Huntington (The Upturned Glass), and the protagonist’s lurch into a twilight world is plausible enough, although noir purists may feel they drop the ball at the end. Personally, I’m not troubled by that aspect and prefer to look at the whole thing as an ethical fable, a warning for the curious if you like, where where it isn’t necessary to take matters to full on Scarlet Street extremes.

Constance Smith’s career was heading towards an abrupt halt at this stage, and indeed her life would take on a distinctly noir shading in the years to come, but none of that is in evidence on the screen. She turns in a good performance as the singer with secrets, and it’s easy to believe in anyone succumbing to her appeal; it’s a confident piece of work, combining humor, sexiness and just a hint of desperation at a couple of key moments. Kennedy is fine too and taps into a nice line in disenchantment, and he’s capable of grit and toughness when the script requires. The focus remains firmly on the two leads, which is fine as it lends a touch of intimacy to the story. Jack Allen provides solid support as Kennedy’s business partner and friend. Joy Shelton doesn’t get a lot to do, which is a pity as I think a little more development of her character might have added a layer of complexity to the drama. Cyril Chamberlain will be an immediately recognizable face to anyone familiar with British films of this era and he pops up here as a persistent henchman. I don’t think I’m straying too far into spoiler territory here if I say that the main villain is played, with suitable oiliness, by James Carney. Impulse was his last role and it appears he died the following year from gunshot wounds (if IMDb is to be believed) but I’ve not been able to learn anything else beyond that.

Impulse probably isn’t the most readily available title, in all honesty. It can be found in Renown’s Crime Collection Vol.2, and it’s in fairly good shape overall – I imagine it pops up from time to time in the UK on TPTV so that’s maybe another option. I have a bit of a soft spot for the output of Robert S Baker and Monty Berman’s Tempean Films, an outfit which may not have produced any especially great movies,  but made a lot of entertaining ones nonetheless. The sheer number of crime/noir movies made in Britain in the post-war years is staggering and while some of them are eminently forgettable, there are plenty offering a good deal of viewing pleasure, either in spite or because of their modesty. Impulse is relatively obscure but well worth a look for fans of the director or the stars.

A Left and a Right

The fight game, with its allusions to glory and honor taking a ringside seat with corruption and manipulation, has often been featured in films noir, either peripherally or as a central plot element. Today, guest poster Gordon Gates focuses on a couple of boxing movies that don’t get talked about so much.

A double bill of boxing programmers with early Robert Ryan, Scott Brady and Richard Denning performances:
Golden Gloves (1940) & In This Corner (1948)
These two boxing films are early examples of what would become top flight noir films such as Champion, The Set-Up and The Harder They Fall.

First up is Golden Gloves from 1940

Richard Denning is an up and coming amateur boxer who makes a couple of bucks on the side, boxing for small time racketeer, J. Carrol Naish. Naish runs a string of boxing clubs that holds mismatched fights to packed crowds. “The people want knock-outs. So that is what i give them.” Robert Paige plays a newspaperman out to expose the racket which of course annoys Naish no end.

Paige arranges an amateur boxing tournament with straight up matches and proper refs, doctors etc. When George Ernest, the kid brother of Denning’s fiancée, Jeanne Cagney, is killed in one of Naish’s mismatches, Denning decides to join Paige and clean up the sport. Naish has other plans, and decides to wreck Paige’s next event by planting a ringer, Robert Ryan. (Ryan’s second credited role) Ryan’s job is to win the amateur event and then tell the papers he is really a pro.

This of course would destroy Paige’s attempt at cleaning up the sport. Naish now murders a boxer who threatens to spill the beans to the press. There is plenty of double dealing and knives to the back going on in this one. Edward Brophy, who plays a crooked manager, is a complete hoot to watch. Needless to say the last fight becomes a bout between Denning and the ringer, Ryan.

Denning manages to pull off a win to save the day while Naish and his gang are grabbed by John Law for the murder.

While I’m not saying this is an actual noir, there are plenty of flashes throughout the film. The cast and crew here would go on to be featured in many film noir.

The film was directed by Edward Dmytryk with help from an uncredited, Felix Feist. Dmytryk of course went on to helm the noirs Murder, My Sweet, Cornered, Crossfire, Obsession and The Sniper. Feist also dabbled in film noir with The Devil Thumbs a Ride, The Threat, The Man Who Cheated Himself, Tomorrow Is Another Day, The Basketball Fix and This Woman Is Dangerous included in his resume.

The D of P was Henry Sharp who lensed Ministry of Fear, The Glass Alibi, High Tide and Guilty.

The film was written by noir regulars Maxwell Shane, Fear in the Night, The Naked Street, The Glass Wall and Lewis R. Foster, who did Crashout and Manhandled.


Next up on the bill is In This Corner from 1948.
This one has Scott Brady in his third film and first lead, as a just out of the Navy scrapper who wants to become a pro boxer. He tells his girl, Anabel Shaw, that he is off to join an old Navy vet who manages a boxing club. Brady tells her that once he makes his fame and fortune, they can get married etc.

Brady finds the old vet has not managed a fighter in years and the club is just an old rooming house with himself as the only boxer. Brady sticks it out and is soon hired as a sparring partner at a club owned by a mobbed up manager, James Millican. Brady is soon signed to a contract by Millican after he decks a ranked fighter during a sparring bout.

Brady KO’s his first opponent and is soon moving up with 9 straight wins. His girl Shaw joins him and life looks good. That is till Millican informs him he is to take a dive in the next weekend’s fight. Millican’s mob is placing a large wager at long odds on Brady’s opponent, and his assistance is required. Brady is more than a little annoyed at this idea and tells Millican to get stuffed. Brady intends to win and to hell with the mob! Of course the mob has a back-up plan. They stick a punch-drunk boxer one step away from the morgue in with Brady to spar with. The boxer, Johnny Indrisano, goes down in a heap at the first punch and is hauled off to the hospital. It is the night of the fight, and Brady is getting ready to enter the ring when a telegram is delivered. It states that Indrisano has died from Brady’s punch to the head.

Needless to say this news throws Brady’s game off and he is savagely thrashed, just like the mob wanted. He asks for a re-match in 3 weeks and gets it. He trains hard but the death of Indrisano eats at him. The day of the fight, Brady sends Shaw off to see about helping out the dead boxer’s family. Imagine the surprise when Shaw finds no record of Indrisano’s death.

She digs deeper and discovers the whole thing was a mob ploy to upset Brady. She hunts down the quite alive Indrisano who is being stashed at Millican’s country house. Of course while all this is going on, Brady is again being pummeled in the ring. Shaw, the police and the just rescued Indrisano get to the arena just in time for Brady to rebound for a KO. Millican is grabbed up by the cops and the film is wrapped in just under an hour.

The director was Charles F. Riesner, whose claim to fame was Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr and the Marx Brothers’ The Big Store. The D of P was Guy Roe who worked on noir such as, Railroaded, Behind Locked Doors, Trapped and Armored Car Robbery. The story is by Fred Niblo Jr who worked on Convicted, The Incident, The Bodyguard and The Wagons Roll at Night.

Ex-pug Johnny Indrisano sported a 64-9-4 record as a pro and beat several world champs during his career. He then became a character actor and a trainer for boxing films. He has bit parts in 99 River Street, Johnny Angel, The Bodyguard, Knock on Any Door, Tension, Borderline, Force of Evil, The Set-Up and about a dozen more noirs and numerous TV shows.

Nifty little low renter that is better than I make it sound.

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Gordon Gates

Quantez

Men ride longer over blood than money.

The western as a chamber piece almost seems like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? The entire genre is built around the concept of the frontier, of space and expansion, of looking out rather than looking in. In purely physical terms, the western is at heart an outdoor creature. For all that, it’s not so difficult to find examples of the genre retreating indoors, tales withdrawing into a confined space to better facilitate their telling. Off the  top  of my head, Day of the Outlaw, Hangman’s Knot, The Secret of Convict Lake  and The Outcasts of Poker Flat are just a handful of titles adopting this approach that I’ve featured on this site. Quantez (1957) slots comfortably into this category and offers an object lesson in how to maximize the potential of a superficially narrow setup.

Quantez is a movie full of contrast and even the shape of the narrative is a reflection of this, alternating between urgency and torpor, light and dark, a flight from fear and a race towards renewal. The opening is all pace, urgency and desperation, figures in the primal landscape of the west running for their lives. That they are outlaws is soon apparent and those in pursuit are seeking justice for robbery and murder. Heller (John Larch) is the leader, a bully and sadist who is keen to build his notoriety, yet he still defers to some extent to the terse and enigmatic Gentry (Fred MacMurray), sensing perhaps that he’s in the presence of someone who can be neither bested nor intimidated. The remainder of the party is made up of Chaney (Dorothy Malone), who has the dubious honor of being Heller’s woman, a brooding young man by the name of Teach (John Gavin), and a bitterly resentful half-Apache called Gato (Sydney Chaplin).  These five are making for the town of Quantez in the hope of evading the posse on their heels. However, their arrival reveals the town as an abandoned shell of a settlement, a place whose residents have hastily vacated and which is being observed by a threatening Apache band. So, amid the dust and debris, the five fugitives in search of salvation have landed in what is in effect an anteroom, the last stop before redemption or retribution. Which is it to be? An evening of enforced confinement will eventually lead to a decisive confrontation, and for one of them at least, a form of spiritual rapprochement.

Quantez is very much the chamber piece I spoke of at the top of this piece and acts as a useful illustration of how this form can be applied successfully to a western setting. It’s the juxtaposition of perspectives which works to its overall advantage. The classic western protagonist is one who is forever in pursuit of freedom, sometimes from the constraints of the old world, and sometimes from the encroachment of civilization and its deceptive allure in the new. Who better to demonstrate this than fugitives from the law? Essentially damned by their previous actions, they are forced by circumstances into confinement, where the physical restrictions imposed give rise to heightened emotional pressure. The effects of this pressure and the increasingly powerful draw of those open vistas that are left behind, but remain tantalizingly near in the future, have the potential to produce a purer distillation of drama.

Director Harry Keller did a lot of TV work as well a string of B westerns, none of which I can claim to be familiar with. He also had a run of interesting looking features in the mid to late 1950 and only a few of those are readily available. I have seen and enjoyed Six Black Horses but Quantez is even stronger. Of course it has to be acknowledged that a good deal of what makes this movie so attractive is the visuals, and cinematographer Carl E Guthrie worked some genuine magic with his lighting and his shooting of the interiors.

I know there are those who feel Face of a Fugitive sees Fred MacMurray at his best in a western role, and it is unquestionably a fine movie with a strong central performance from the lead. Nevertheless, I’m of the opinion that Quantez tops it, and I’m especially fond of the shading MacMurray brings to his characterization of Gentry, the ultimate fugitive on the run from the law, the past and the whispers of his own conscience. He brings confidence to his movements, conveying the experience and assuredness of the character perfectly. His delivery of the dialogue is spot on too, that clipped abruptness making it seem as though the words were rushing to catch up with their meaning.

Dorothy Malone could do little wrong around this time. She had just come off an Oscar winning role for Douglas Sirk in Written on the Wind and would go on to do equally good work for the same director in The Tarnished Angels. The part of Chaney gave her an opportunity to portray a woman who has almost given up on self-respect, but not entirely – there’s still a fragile thread to cling on to. In some ways I was reminded of Claire Trevor’s fading moll in Key Largo, not least when she was enduring humiliation for her singing at the hands of John Larch. The latter manages to nail the brutal worthlessness of his character, a man who has yet to meet a moral he hasn’t spat on. While John Gavin and Sydney Chaplin essay varying degrees of good and bad with moderate success they end up somewhat overshadowed by those around them. On the other hand, James Barton is excellent as the nameless minstrel, a figure who drifts in as though from some classical tragedy and whose song and art serve to dispel some of the shadows of the past and also inspire a rebirth of sorts.

Quantez is quite widely available on DVD and there has also been a satisfactory Blu-ray release in Germany  from Koch Media. That said, it’s worth pointing out that there is a US Blu-ray in the pipeline which will feature a commentary track recorded by Toby Roan. This is a little gem of a western which remains criminally underrated. I’ve been a fan of it for ages now and I’d urge anyone who hasn’t seen it to check it out.

Major Dundee on Blu-ray

Due in mid-June from Arrow. While the movie has been released in high definition elsewhere before now, this limited edition looks like being a full bells and whistles version. The price isn’t cheap but the list of contents is impressive to say the least:

TWO-DISC LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY CONTENTS

  • The 136-minute Extended Version of the film from a 4K scan, as well as the original 122-minute Theatrical Version
  • 60-page perfect bound booklet featuring new writing by Farran Nehme, Roderick Heath and Jeremy Carr plus select archive material
  • Limited edition packaging featuring newly commissioned artwork by Tony Stella
  • Fold out poster featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tony Stella

DISC ONE – EXTENDED VERSION

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation from a 4K scan by Sony Pictures
  • DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround audio with new score by Christopher Caliendo
  • Lossless original mono audio with original score by Daniele Amfitheatrof
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Audio commentary with Nick Redman, David Weddle, Garner Simmons, Paul Seydor
  • Audio commentary by historian and critics Glenn Erickson & Alan K. Rode
  • Audio commentary by historian and critic Glenn Erickson
  • Moby Dick on Horseback, a brand new visual essay by David Cairns
  • Passion & Poetry: The Dundee Odyssey, a feature length documentary about the making of Major Dundee by Mike Siegel, featuring James Coburn, Senta Berger, Mario Adorf, L.Q. Jones, R.G. Armstrong, Gordon Dawson
  • Passion & Poetry: Peckinpah Anecdotes, nine actors talk about working with legendary director Sam Peckinpah, featuring Kris Kristofferson, Ernest Borgnine, James Coburn, David Warner, Ali MacGraw, L.Q. Jones, Bo Hopkins, R.G. Armstrong, Isela Vega
  • Mike Siegel: About the Passion & Poetry Project, in which filmmaker Mike Siegel talks about his beginnings and his ongoing historical project about director Sam Peckinpah
  • Extensive stills galleries, featuring rare on set, behind the scenes, and marketing materials
  • 2005 re-release trailer

DISC TWO – THEATRICAL VERSION (LIMITED EDITION EXCLUSIVE)

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation from a 2K scan

  • Lossless original mono audio

  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing

  • Riding for a Fall, a vintage behind the scenes featurette

  • Extended/deleted scenes

  • Silent Outtakes

  • Select extended/deleted scenes and outtakes with commentary by historian and critic Glenn Erickson giving context on how they were intended to appear in Peckinpah’s vision of the film

  • Original US, UK and German theatrical trailers

  • Stills gallery

Full info available on Arrow’s site here.

Autumn Leaves

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The present is made up of little bits of the past.

Recently, I spoke a little about filmmakers venturing outside of their perceived comfort zone and the how the ability to do so successfully can be taken as an indication of their artistic skill. The classic era of Hollywood moviemaking could be seen as a factory environment which encouraged specialization among performers, writers and directors. I say could because it’s not really the case at all and once one looks beyond a handful of headline titles it’s an assertion that rarely stands up to any scrutiny. Even the unsung journeymen were afforded the opportunity to try their hand at a range of genre pictures. I think the better or more interesting directors understood the challenge presented by these opportunities, that the form and conventions of genre (that frequently maligned term) could be adopted, applied or discarded as appropriate in the pursuit of their art. It’s easy to look at the films of Robert Aldrich and decide he was simply a classy purveyor of tough cynicism, and indeed I’ve been guilty of doing so myself in the past. However, I’d like to think that the years bring us if not exactly wisdom then at least a broader critical perspective. So in that spirit, let’s look at Autumn Leaves (1956), a superficially atypical offering from one of cinema’s great talents.

The story opens with Millie Wetherby (Joan Crawford) hard at work. She spends her days in her neat bungalow typing up manuscripts for writers, putting the finishing touches to the experiences and adventures of others, a vicarious existence if ever there was one. Her life is a mundane one, and a lonely one at that. When a satisfied customer passes on a couple of concert tickets he doesn’t need she accepts them and decides to treat herself to a rare evening out. A brief flashback sequence triggered by the familiar music makes it plain that Millie’s solitary life is the result of sacrifices she made to care for an ailing parent, that time and opportunity just passed her by. And yet her walk home takes her past a small eatery, a place that catches her eye for no special reason other than a reluctance to let the evening end. Still, taking those tickets and yielding to that impulse to stop off for a bite to eat before returning to the empty home prove to be pivotal moments in this humdrum and inconsequential life. As she sits alone in her booth, prim and composed, listening to the movie’s title song on the jukebox the shadow of a wistful smile plays across her features. Another shadow enters the frame at this point, another customer hoping to share some table space in the crowded restaurant. This is Burt Hanson (Cliff Robertson), a fresh-faced and talkative young man, one more soul adrift in the urban anonymity. Here we have the beginnings of a tentative and rather sweet romance, a predictable setup in many ways. Yet the tone and direction alter radically in the second half as a far from attractive past barrels its way into the fragile present, and the threat to that fragility is what forms the basis of the drama which subsequently unfolds.

The cinema of the 1950s is an endlessly fascinating subject for this viewer. There are of course the technical advances which were ongoing and literally changing the shape of the movies, but it’s the thematic probing that seems to characterize this decade of filmmaking which intrigues me most. The promise and potential, the surface gloss of this brave new post-war world seemed to offer so much food for artistic contemplation. Time and again we encounter the notion of rebirth and renewal in 50s cinema, and indeed the characters played by Crawford and Sheppard Strudwick openly discuss the concept of being reborn in what is otherwise one of the more prosaic scenes in this picture. However, I’m of the opinion that reinvention is perhaps a more appropriate word to describe the central theme of Autumn Leaves. Millie certainly reinvents herself in the role of carer which she appears to have occupied all her life, although one might argue the ending does look to a future beyond that. Burt is without doubt the most obvious source of reinvention; he adopts and discards aspects of his past and present at the drop of a hat, unconsciously creating whatever reality feels expedient on any given occasion. Of course the consequent psychological meltdown and the road back from the mental abyss into which he descends is another part of that process.

So what can one say about Aldrich, and is there cynicism on view here? Well yes and no. If one takes the view that peering beyond the veils of society to get nearer the truth is cynicism, then perhaps Aldrich can be said to be a cynic. I’m not sure that is the case though; for one thing cynicism suggests a sourness, particularly on a personal level. As I see it, Aldrich wasn’t going down that route. On the contrary, I see a man casting a sidelong glance at society on an institutional level, almost like a more abrasive version of Douglas Sirk. Unlike Sirk’s more sumptuous, glossy presentation of a flawed idyll, Aldrich’s visual approach is starker and more direct with Charles Lang’s noir-shaded cinematography and the canted angles and mise-en-scène emphasizing the narrow range of options open to his trapped and tormented characters.

Joan Crawford’s career on screen could be separated into distinct eras, with Autumn Leaves coming close to the end of a very successful run starting with Mildred Pierce. Her role as Millie Wetherby is a strong one and a good fit for her at this stage in her life and career. There’s an open acknowledgement of all the little (and not so little) insecurities that come with ageing. There are, as expected, a number of “big” moments but it’s actually some of the smaller, more intimate instances that stick in my mind, that early scene in the restaurant for example, or some of the exchanges with Ruth Donnelly. Cliff Robertson landed a plum part as the deeply disturbed Burt and his handling of the character’s slow disintegration is well done, with vague hints dropped from early on and casual lies imparted before their enormity is finally revealed.

Both Vera Miles and Lorne Greene are fine too as the calculating ex-wife and the frankly sinister father respectively. I mentioned before Aldrich’s less than reverent view of institutions and his take on an appallingly dysfunctional family is deeply shocking. Miles’ glacial turn as the entitled and contemptuous ex is marvelously mean – leaving that cigarette smouldering in the ashtray in Crawford’s bungalow is a nice touch. And Greene is on top form as the bullying, creepy patriarch. If family is seen as representing the bedrock of society, the horrors implicit in Burt’s domestic background offers as withering a criticism of the post-war American Dream as one could imagine. In support, the aforementioned Ruth Donnelly is a joy every time she appears and there are small parts for Maxine Cooper (Velda from Kiss Me Deadly) and, as a gloriously jaded and world weary waitress, Marjorie Bennett.

Autumn Leaves is one of Robert Aldrich’s early films that seems to get much less attention than his other work from around that time. Frankly, it deserves better as all those involved give a good account of themselves, not to mention the fact the movie tackles a tricky subject with confidence. Rather than resort to dry cynicism, Aldrich takes an unflinching look at the process of decay in certain institutional pillars but reserves a cautious optimism for the individuals at the heart of his drama and for their simple hopes. And, last but by no means least, there’s Nat “King” Cole’s superb theme song:

No Man of Her Own

In the world of Cornell Woolrich every dream is in reality a nightmare concealed behind a mask, every instance of happiness is merely bait to lure the unsuspecting into the ultimate trap of despair. It should be no surprise therefore that his tales of dread with their outrageous turns of fate have formed the basis for a fair number of films noir. No Man of Her Own (1950) is a slick piece of dark cinema, opening with desperation, then tantalizingly suggesting that fortune may be more than just an illusion, before relentlessly gathering up those crumbs of comfort one by one.

Many a film noir has opened with a voiceover, frequently stentorian and strident, eulogizing the agencies of the law, or sometimes harsh, cynical and redolent of whisky, cigarettes and hard knocks. Here it’s a different matter, dreamy and wistful with regret and resignation. As the camera pans across an idyll of suburban charm and respectability, and then on into a picture postcard house the weary tones draw the viewer’s attention to the already obvious attractions, before trailing off to the merest whisper to acknowledge disconsolately: but not for us. On we travel, deeper into the home we now realize nurses something painful, perhaps even incurable. A man sits before his hearth, book in hand but tension writ large on his face, and across from him sits his wife, cradling an infant, rigid and apprehensive. Hers is the voice that has guided us inside, and the hers will be the memory that carries us back via flashback to the months before when a different brand of despair held her in its grip.

Helen Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck) is in a bad way. She’s pregnant and alone in a big city, with barely a dime to her name, nowhere to go and a former lover (Lyle Bettger) who wants nothing to do with her. In lieu of salvation she’s presented with a door resolutely locked and an envelope shoved hastily across the threshold. This is the ultimate brush off, a cross country rail ticket, with a five dollar bill scornfully keeping it company. And thus she sets off, worn down by the life she’s left behind and fearful for that within her and before her. The overcrowded train seems to foreshadow her future, perched precariously on the periphery, surrounded by apathy. Well, perhaps not quite. A sunny young couple (Phyllis Thaxter & Richard Denning), recently married and on their way back from Europe take her under their wing, the wife confiding how nervous she feels about meeting the in-laws who know nothing of her beyond her name. It’s a bittersweet moment for Helen, a rare instance of compassion that both warms her for its simplicity and decency, and chills her too as it’s a glimpse of the life she will never know. The latter is emphasized almost cruelly when her new acquaintance asks her to slip her ring onto her finger for safe keeping while she freshens up. It’s here that fate, in the shape of a calamitous train crash, strides on the stage and alters the course of everybody’s lives…

Mitchell Leisen is a director whose work I’m not overly familiar with, having seen only a handful of his movies and that being a long time ago. I recall reading somewhere that Billy Wilder was none too fond of Leisen, based I believe on his experience of scripting a number of films for him. What I do know for sure is that No Man of Her Own is a very stylish piece of work, fluid and smooth, seamlessly moving from that languorous opening narration – somewhat reminiscent of Rebecca in a way –  into the long flashback that charts the peaks and troughs of  horror and hope navigated by the heroine. Much of the action takes place in the family home, with occasional forays to a country club and also to the seedier part of town where blackmailers and chiselers can rent short term as they angle for the big score. Wherever the camera might roam, from secure domesticity to boozy squalor, Leisen frames his shots with great clarity and director of photography Daniel L Fapp lights and shoots it all in an atmospheric noir style. Dread and doom might be loitering with intent in the shadows, but they’re awfully attractive shadows all the same.

Barbara Stanwyck was nothing if not versatile. There was always a toughness about her, but she could suppress that to some extent when a role required it. In No Man of Her Own she certainly displays grit, and there’s more than enough adversity thrown her way to necessitate that, but she also manages to convey the essential vulnerability of her character, especially in the earlier scenes but later on too as the threats she faces see her options shrink. Throughout her long career she was able to slip from one character to another with ease, and this role offered her the opportunity to indulge in a wide and nuanced acting workout.

John Lund is impressive as the leading man. He starts out as an ebullient and carefree man of means, never any more serious than he needs to be. Then comes the suspicion, the persistent little niggles, the doubts which can never be entirely dispelled, finally seguing into the implacable fatalism of his love. The extent to which this love has consumed him becomes apparent in his dead-eyed determination to cover up a crime, and in his frank admission that whether or not it happened as he was told means nothing to him.

“That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” Watching Lyle Bettger make his debut, it’s hard not to have Shakespeare’s lines from Hamlet spring to mind. Smug, impossibly self-satisfied and without the merest scrap of decency, Bettger was introduced to cinema audiences as a thoroughly bad lot. There’s not one redeeming feature on show and he has the rottenness of the character down pat, not only the smirking and preening but also the steel edge beneath the surface which lends substance to his threats. Richard Denning and Phyllis Thaxter are not around long enough to make much of an impression in support. However, veteran stage actress Jane Cowl, in one of her rare and sadly one of her final screen roles too, is very good as the patrician matriarch. It’s also worth mentioning that Dooley Wilson (the man every film fan will know as Sam from Casablanca) pops up in a virtual cameo early on. And of course Carole Mathews has a brief but decisive part to play.

No Man of Her Own was released on DVD by Olive Films some years ago, and I don’t think it’s ever been upgraded to Blu-ray – no doubt someone will put me right on that if I’m mistaken. It’s a strong transfer, to my eyes anyway, and the quality of the image is pleasing throughout. This is a fine and hugely stylish film noir, highly polished in every department and just as highly recommended.

Other adaptations of Cornell Woolrich material which have been featured on this site:

Black Angel

The Leopard Man

Night Has a Thousand Eyes

Phantom Lady

Hell Canyon Outlaws

After contributing a number of write-ups encompassing film noir and a couple of visits to the small screen, guest poster Gordon Gates has turned his attention to a late ’50s western with Dale Robertson in the lead and Paul Landres behind the camera.

One of the more popular western stars of the 1950’s was, Dale Robertson.  He starred in a string of well made dusters like, The Silver Whip, City of Bad Men, Dakota Incident, A Day of Fury and Sitting Bull. He was also the star of the popular western television series, Tales of Wells Fargo which ran for 201 episodes between 1957 and 1962. Here is a lesser known Robertson film, Hell Canyon Outlaws (1957)

This one is an interesting low budget film from Jarod Zukor Productions and released by Republic Pictures. The leads are played by Dale Robertson and Brian Keith.

This one is set in the small western burg of Gold Ridge. Dale Robertson is the town Sheriff, who along with his Deputy, Charles Fredericks, has cleaned up the former rough and tumble town. It has been a few years since there was any real trouble and the town council now decides to let Robertson and company go.

Of course this idea soon backfires as four hard and ready types ride into town. The group is led by Brian Keith, and include three of the biggest thugs to grace the screen. The 6’7″ Buddy Baer, the 6’5′ Mike Lane and the 6’6″ Don Megowan, who make for a most imposing gang.

The outlaws soon make themselves at home, tossing hotel residents out of their rooms, helping themselves to the saloon’s beverages and so on. The whole thing rubs former Lawman, Robertson, the wrong way, but he can do nothing about the swine since he is no longer in power. And, as it so happens, the new Sheriff, Alexander Lockwood, is out of town.

In the mix here is Robertson’s soon to be bride, Rossana Rory. Miss Rory of course wants her man to stay out of the mess. One of the town’s young men, Dick Kallman, who considers himself handy with a gun, goes after the four. This does not go well for Kallman as he is quickly disarmed and tossed into a mud hole face first. He is lucky not to be killed as the outlaw types laugh at him.

The gang plan on having fun before hitting the local bank for a hefty withdrawal. Robertson can see where this is going, and sends his former Deputy, Fredericks, off to retrieve the new Sheriff from out of town.

When the new Lawman, Lockwood returns, he goes to have a talk with Keith and his men. As this is happening, the young Kallman has reamed himself and pops into the saloon to continue his “discussion” with gang leader, Keith. Kallman of course is soon ready for a plot at boot hill. Keith and the boys now slap around Sheriff Lockwood. They decide it is now time to do their “banking business”.

Robertson by now has had enough of this nonsense. Robertson and Fredericks arm up and go a calling on Keith and crew. Outlaw Baer is the first to go down with a bright shiny hole drilled through his forehead. More rounds fly with Megowan and Lane on the wrong end of the exchange.

Soon it is just Keith and Robertson standing across from each other. Keith pulls a 20 dollar gold piece from his pocket. He tells Robertson he will flip the coin into the air, when it hits the floor, they draw. The coin hits and iron flashes with both getting off a round. Who is the winner?

This one is a decent low budget quickie that runs just 72 minutes. The story is a bit shop worn and plays out like a poor man’s High Noon. Having said that, the cast and crew do quite well with what was an obvious shoestring budget. The acting is acceptable and the look of the film, quite sharp.

Paul Landres handles the direction here. Landres was a long time film editor who took up the directing reins in the early 50’s. While mainly known for television, he did work on a few b-films. The director of photography was the Oscar winning cinematographer, Floyd Crosby. Crosby was the man who shot High Noon. Also helping with the look of the film is another Oscar winner, editor, Elmo Williams. Williams also worked on HIGH NOON and won his Oscar for his efforts on that production.

Rossana Rory some might recall from the Italian films, The Big Boodle and Big Deal on Madonna Street.

Well worth hunting up in my opinion if you are a Robertson fan. Our man Colin has reviews here on RTHC on 6 Robertson films.
Gordon Gates

These Thousand Hills

Innocent? Well, that depends on who the jury is. I’ll tell you a couple of things I ain’t guilty of. I ain’t prayed on Sunday. Bought cows cheap on Monday. I ain’t broke my word. I ain’t climbed up high on somebody else’s back or thought of myself better than another man. I ain’t double-crossed a friend or made a little tin god out of money. Sure, I’m innocent. I’m as innocent as you. Or ain’t you boys innocent?

Dreams, and loss, and discovery, these ideas amount to a fine framework around which to construct a drama. If they are not constants, then they are at least experiences common to all of us, situations which therefore resonate because of their universality. One could trace the course of many a life by following the line or arc punctuated and described by them, which is precisely what occurs over the hour and a half running time of These Thousand Hills (1959).

This is the story of Lat Evans (Don Murray), whom we first encounter signing on with  a cattle outfit and chafing at the bit to get ahead in the world. His is a poor background, and an unhappy one too, shaped by a father whose lack of professional success saw him turn to unbending religion and ruthless discipline. This has worked its way into the heart and soul of Lat, forging an inner steel that produces the kind of resilience necessary to rise in the world, but also encourages another colder hardness, the type that is capable of shattering the most intimate relationships. While Lat is without question the principle figure in the affair, those dreams and losses and discoveries I opened by speaking about also relate to others in the picture. Tom Ping (Stuart Whitman) is direct in his pursuit of a simple philosophy that life is for living, exuberant and reckless where Lat is driven and calculating, a man whose heart will always overrule his judgement. And finally, we have Callie (Lee Remick), a saloon girl possessed of a natural compassion and charity. Her love is of the simple and uncomplicated variety, and it founders on the rocks of sanctimony and abuse.

All that may sound like a rather grim business, and there’s certainly grief and tragedy on display. Nevertheless, those elements serves a purpose, without them the film’s central message about the triumph of the human spirit would be diminished. By the end of the 1950s the western had attained artistic synergy, a place where theme, story, and visuals all came together to form something splendid. Salvation and redemption are basic ingredients of all human endeavor, they are the prize sought by all and the way these movies integrated the concepts into their fabric with such subtlety remains one of their most enduring strengths. I haven’t read the A B Guthrie novel which this movie is  based on but the film Richard Fleischer directed and Alfred Hayes scripted is a fine piece of work. The Colorado locations are stunning at times and those magnificent vistas form a suitably epic backdrop for this tale of towering ambition and high ideals. Fleischer made some very good and visually striking movies in the 50’s, exploring all the possibilities afforded by the CinemaScope image and his use of rich, vibrant colors is immensely attractive.

The character of Lat Evans isn’t an easy one to portray on screen, requiring a maturing process to take place not only over a relatively short running time but in a fairly complex way too. It’s to Don Murray’s great credit that he manages to pull it off successfully, the shifting of his priorities and the corresponding drift of loyalties and allegiances never appears jarring or affected. What’s more, the nature of the man he plays is layered at all times – enthused yet reserved, ambitious and loyal while also prone to hypocrisy. When his moment of truth finally arrives and he heeds the voice of his own conscience, although arguably it’s a two stage affair, it’s never less than convincing. Stuart Whitman is also on good form as the flighty friend and turns in a performance of great charm. His best scene is the one where he shyly asks Lat to be best man at his wedding to saloon hostess Jen (Jean Willes), and he finds himself rebuffed by his friend’s puritanical propriety. His journey from confusion and hurt through to explicit anger is so well realized, and extremely effective.

There are two significant female roles, those played by Lee Remick and Patricia Owens. Remick got the plum part, that of the woman who loves Lat unconditionally and suffers the greatest indignities for her trouble. It’s her actions that set Lat on the initial path to success and, despite all she must bear, she is not only the one who triggers his ultimate redemption but proves herself to be his physical savior as well. Patricia Owens has a less sympathetic part; she comes over as somewhat spoiled and priggish, but there’s more to her character than that, which is made clear by the end. Richard Egan is at his callous and brutal best as the villainous Jehu. Cheating, conniving, provocative and sadistic, he uses his confidence and physical presence well and the build up to the final confrontation (shot amid the garish crimson decor of the saloon) has him sneering and positively dripping malignancy.  Among the supporting cast Albert Dekker and Royal Dano offer reassuringly recognizable faces.

These Thousand Hills was put out on DVD many years ago by Fox and it still looks strong and attractive – the studio was generally releasing a lot of exceptionally fine transfers back then – in crisp and colorful CinemaScope. I’m not aware of the movie ever having been released on Blu-ray anywhere and, given the ownership of the rights now, that does not seem likely to happen in the near future. As for the movie itself, I don’t believe those dreams mentioned above are fully realized by anyone while all of the main characters experience loss, and innocence is probably the chief casualty in this regard. Still, all of this is eclipsed by discovery and it applies to practically everyone involved, though most tellingly in the case of Lat. The epiphany he undergoes is what adds meaning, bears out the words of his old boss about nobody finishing up the same as they started out, and leaves the viewer with a sense of closure. The final year of the western’s greatest decade saw a number of superior movies produced (and this is true too across a range of genres if we’re being honest) and These Thousand Hills slots neatly in among them. I never cease to be impressed by the sheer richness of the western in these years and the apparently effortless artistry of those working within the genre. A superb film and highly recommended.

Fire Down Below

Romance, revenge and renewal – introduce a movie from the mid or late 1950s with those words and the chances are people will think you’re talking about a western. I guess there’s a point that could be made here about those themes being more a reflection of the era than a specific genre, even if that genre seemed to favor them more or treat them with greater sensitivity. Fire Down Below (1957) is certainly not a western – if it’s necessary to find a label, then I suppose it could be called a kind of Caribbean adventure/melodrama – but it does take a good long look at the three words I used as an opening. Of course it also follows the cardinal rule of moviemaking by ensuring this is woven into a consistently entertaining story.

Many a good yarn has originated in a bar, and this one essentially begins there. Tony (Jack Lemmon)  and Felix (Robert Mitchum) are two drifters, the kind of figures who seemed to abound in mid-20th century movies, men who have either lost something in life and are casting around for it, or who have never possessed it in the first place. A combination of curiosity, disillusionment and aimlessness has drawn these two to the Caribbean, and fate has thrown them together as joint owners of a clapped out boat. Their morals are, shall we say, flexible and they’re not overly particular about how they earn a dollar. So it is that Irena (Rita Hayworth) comes into their lives, a stateless person hailing from somewhere in the Baltic and now in need of someone to smuggle her through immigration. While the two men are friends they are very different characters, Tony being a romantic idealist whereas Felix is jaded to the core. The effect on these two of sharing a confined space with an attractive woman is as powerful as one might expect. Enthusiasm, desire, envy and bitterness all make an appearance as the tensions simmer in the tropical heat and eventually boil over into conflict and betrayal. The upshot of it all is that Tony swears vengeance on his former friend, but there will be a further trial to be endured before any form of closure can be achieved.

I don’t  imagine it’s any coincidence that the ship carrying Tony back  for his longed for reckoning is named Ulysses. Just like the hero of Greek mythology, his is a long journey home, not quite a decade perhaps but it certainly develops into a supreme challenge and, as with all fables, there is a lesson to be learnt. Vengeance is a wonderful narrative device, it drives characters toward a confrontation, frequently with their own personal demons, and the better tales leave it in no doubt that it’s an unworthy goal. I think Fire Down Below is one of these better tales and the way the conflict is ultimately resolved lays bare the lie at the heart of the quest for revenge. Personally, I think it’s hugely satisfying that after the great conflagration, both emotional and physical, everything is settled not through violence but with a simple kiss. It’s somehow fitting that it is Irena who emerges Athena-like to restore harmony.

Robert Parrish was in the middle of a very strong run here, and would follow this up with two exceptional westerns, Saddle the Wind with Robert Taylor and The Wonderful Country which reunited him with Mitchum. This was a rich period for the director, blending timeless stories, attractive visuals and the kind of themes that defined an era of filmmaking. The movie looks very good and makes fine use of its locations, as shot by Desmond Dickinson,  but it’s not just a glossy travelogue. Parrish was adept at these stories of intertwined relationships and crises of conscience, and he seemed to raise his game when presented with the right material.

I said at the beginning that the movie could be characterized in three words and it’s also true that it all hinges on three different people. Jack Lemmon had already won himself an Oscar in John Ford’s Mister Roberts, and Fire Down Below was another step on the path to growing stardom. He’s a good choice for the mid-West rover; he had that fresh charm and impishness about him at this stage that made his romanticism believable, as well as the subsequent shattering of illusions and his thirst for revenge. The only point where I felt skepticism taking over was at the notion of him going head to head with a bull like Mitchum in a stand-up brawl. Mitchum is his typical cocksure and swaggering self, looking askance at the follies of the world and, you feel sure, not sparing himself any of that acerbic assessment.

However, everything ultimately depends on Rita Hayworth’s Irena. She provides the motivation for all the drama and passion, and I think the honesty of her performance is a big plus. This was her return to the big screen after an absence of four years and, by all accounts, a truly rotten and abusive marriage to Dick Haymes. She wasn’t yet 40 years old but she had about her the aura of one acquainted with disappointment, a woman grown aware of both the pros and cons attached to her beauty. I’m back with honesty again, but there is a raw frankness to her admission at one stage that she has debased herself in life, and the need this woman has to recapture some sense of self-respect is pivotal. Her great triumph, dramatically and spiritually, is sealed right at the end – one simple action serves to restore her own self-esteem, redeem her lover,  and grant a precious gift to his rival, dignity.

I’ve concentrated a lot on the three main characters here but I think the supporting cast of Bernard Lee, Bonar Colleano, Herbert Lom, Edric Connor, Anthony Newley and Eric Pohlmann deserve a brief mention at the very least.

I have an old DVD of Fire Down Below which was released many years ago and it still looks quite strong with rich colors and an attractive CinemaScope image. I understand it’s recently been included in a keenly priced 12 movie set of Hayworth’s films on Blu-ray via Mill Creek, and I imagine it will look even better in high definition. To date, I don’t believe the film has had an official release in the UK, an omission I would have thought one of the independent labels might seek to correct. Anyway, for the time being, I’ll leave you with Jeri Southern’s rendition of the theme tune:

The Furies on Blu-ray

It’s just come to my attention that Criterion in the US are upgrading Anthony Mann’s The Furies (1950) to Blu-ray, it’s due out in April.

This is an impressive if imperfect work, the western, film noir and melodrama converging in Anthony Mann’s movie, adapted from the Niven Busch novel. I wrote about the film here almost nine years ago (now that’s a sobering thought!) and it’s good to hear it’s getting reissued in high definition. Unfortunately, I’m locked in to Region B for Blu-ray but I’d like to think it might come on the market in Europe, maybe via Eureka if not Criterion’s UK division.