Slattery’s Hurricane

Many of the movies that wind up being featured on this site are borderline or peripheral affairs in terms of genre, drifting in and out of that shadowy, hard to define area, which is almost, but not quite, film noir. André de Toth’s Slattery’s Hurricane (1949) is a case in point, mixing in crime, melodrama and adventure in a tale of trust and betrayal that unfolds largely in flashback. In a sense though, this is a movie which more or less defies genre and classification, but perhaps that is no bad thing as it allows viewers to approach it from multiple angles.

After some newsreel footage and a brief opening narration on the subject of hurricanes and their devastating power, the movie proper begins with pilot Will Slattery (Richard Widmark) arriving at an aircraft hangar lashed by torrential rain and high winds. It’s Miami and a beast of a hurricane is bearing down on the coast as he first grapples with and then lays out cold one of his employer’s servants. Slattery is a man every bit as driven as the raging elements around him yet his path will take him not away from danger but straight into its heart, right into the eye of the storm. As he takes the plane up and charts a course that will lead him to whatever place fate has reserved for him the flashback begins. It leads us back to a point before Slattery had fully committed his life to a downward spiral. There’s a roguishness to him, a hint of the irresponsible and the reckless, but even if he’s not as attentive to the needs of his girlfriend Dolores (Veronica Lake) as he ought to be, it doesn’t feel like a major flaw. That’s before Aggie (Linda Darnell) appears on the scene though. While she may be his old flame, she is also the new wife of his friend Lt. Hobson (John Russell). If Hobson is initially unaware of any previous connection between these two and equally blind to the heat the pair are generating every time they come near, the same cannot be said for Dolores. She smells a rat right from the get go and Slattery duly lives down to expectations. As he sets about seducing his friend’s new bride, Dolores is showing signs of fragility. Everything comes to a head when a quick spot of island hopping sees Slattery’s employer succumb to a heart condition, leaving the flyer in possession of the stash of narcotics he had been carrying. With the dead man’s partner threatening him, Dolores suffering a breakdown, Hobson finally cottoning on to what’s been happening behind his back, and a major tropical storm about to tear across Florida, Slattery could be said to be facing a crisis. When it suddenly dawns on a man that all he is and all that he has done has shattered not only his own existence but that of those closest to him, it is perhaps understandable that he might seek out some form of redemption. And so we circle back to the starting point, where a desperate individual buffeted and torn by poor choices and his own weakness has opted to flee the emotional maelstrom he has fallen into and instead tackle the wrath of nature head on.

Director André de Toth has Slattery confined within the perspex and metal of the aircraft’s cockpit for the bulk of the running time, and just as he is bound on all sides by the dimensions of his plane, so is the plane itself held in the fickle and destructive grasp of the great storm. In a sense, everything and everybody in this pared down universe is at the mercy of somebody and something else. Slattery’s hurricane is both a test for the man and a kind of isolation chamber allowing and forcing him to confront himself and his past actions and by so doing try to regain some modicum of self respect.

De Toth had a knack for using weather conditions as a reflection of the emotional states of his characters and the stories built around them. Day of the Outlaw is as chilling and sparse as its frozen setting, and even the ultimately disappointing Dark Waters uses its steamy Louisiana plantation as an effective representation of its overheated and oppressive tale. Essentially trapping his lead in the cockpit of his plane for the duration and only allowing the illusion of escape via the flashbacks takes it a step further. It is here, deep within the roaring darkness which Slattery’s world has become, that he sees himself and his life with the greatest clarity. Those flashbacks to the sun drenched days by the ocean reveal the deceptions and ploys played out in the full light of day. It is in this surface brightness that the dishonesty is presented with the most audacity: Slattery’s careless flirtations with Aggie in front of everyone, the relaxed opulence of the wealthy “candy manufacturer” hiding his drugs operation in plain sight, and of course the medal ceremony where Slattery, in dazzling whites, receives the honor his subsequent actions have now tarnished and Dolores’ ultimate collapse is triggered. Conversely, the enclosing and enveloping darkness and shadows serve to squeeze the less palatable truths out into the open.

Slattery’s Hurricane appears to have been a film that drew a fair bit of attention from Joseph Breen and the Hays Code. Obviously, the entire adultery/cheating thread had to be dealt with obliquely, but filmmakers were well versed in how to get the essentials of such affairs across subtly by the late 1940s. In short, the viewer is always fully aware of what is going on between the characters even when it’s not spelt out explicitly. More guile had to be used, however, in relation to the breakdown undergone by Dolores. Not only is the character in the employ of a couple of drug traffickers, but it turns out she is an addict herself. This kind of development was well beyond the pale though and thus there’s a deliberate woolliness about the nature of her problem and admission to a psychiatric clinic. Nevertheless, the filmmakers did show a degree of inventiveness in slipping in a close up of her doctor’s notes which make it clear that she has a drug problem. What’s more, my impression is that the affluent dope smugglers masquerading as candy merchants are a gay couple, but that too somehow got past Breen’s enforcers.

Slattery’s Hurricane came along just two years after Richard Widmark’s stunning debut in Kiss of Death and I still find it extraordinary just how assured he was even in the very early stages of his career. It was a good role for him at this point, exploiting the shady persona which had been so successful for him but emphasizing the ambiguous rather than the villainous aspects. The film, from a Herman Wouk story, was originally shot and screened with a much more downbeat ending but was then altered before its general release. It would be fair to say that the changes watered down the noir credentials considerably, but I don’t think this damages the film too much. The whole thing  is at heart Slattery’s journey to redemption and, regardless of which way it ends, that goal is attained. The finished film allows for the character’s salvation in addition to his redemption, both of which are earned. If one bears in mind that Veronica Lake was playing an addict, then her drabness and shakiness make some sense. Even so, there is no getting away from the fact that she looked spent or that her film career was nearing its end. She was not yet 27 years old and was struggling with her own substance abuse issues. Linda Darnell had the bigger part and got more screen time. While she is good enough with what she is given, it’s not a terribly taxing role and there is a passivity to it that leaves it not all that interesting. John Russell does not get that much to do either, although he is afforded the opportunity to rough up Widmark some for his betrayal. Gary Merrill is in there too, but mostly spends his time smoking and sweating in the control tower.

Slattery’s Hurricane is a 20th Century Fox production and was released in the US as part of the studio’s MOD line. That may be out of print now but there have been versions available in both Italy and Spain, possibly ports of the US disc. The movie could use a clean up and a sharper transfer, but it’s not a high profile title so that is probably unlikely to happen. It really is Widmark’s show all the way although there’s a lot to enjoy in de Toth’s direction too. All told, this is a well made nearly noir that I recommend checking out.

Carson City

Sometimes I have vague memories of when I first saw certain movies. On occasion, these memories relate to cinema visits, which tend to stand out more of course, but more frequently they are of movies I caught on TV. Saturday afternoon broadcasts introduced me to many films and stars, cementing them in my consciousness largely due to the fact that I came upon them at the right age to allow lasting impressions to form, and also because of the random way I encountered them. As I said, there is a vagueness to all this, and yet I can say that on the afternoon of Saturday January 29th 1977 I was watching Randolph Scott in Carson City (1952). And I am able to state this with confidence due to the wonder of the BBC Genome service, which makes it  possible to discover exactly when any movie was broadcast on its channels. That had been my only viewing of the film till I finally managed to pick it up on DVD over thirty years later. Of course I didn’t recall details but those Randolph Scott westerns that I adored as a youngster worked their way into my memory and played a defining role in shaping my love of cinema. Looked at now, over 45 years on from that weekend spent in front of the family TV, it may not represent the finest work Scott did, but it is a good movie. Perhaps even more importantly, it evokes for me a little of that magic I first experienced all those years ago.

If some movies are capable of transporting viewers like myself back to particular points in time, it is probably fair to say that the western, arguably more than any other genre, succeeded in doing something similar to society itself, encouraging the audience to cast its collective mind back to the that pivotal point where progress butted heads with freewheeling lawlessness and ushered in the modern age. Carson City, as is the case with countless other genre entries, kicks off with a hold-up of a stagecoach. It is such a familiar and well worn trope, but it serves its purpose for all that by drawing viewers into the action immediately. It plays out in a quirky fashion, the bandits laying out a feast before the passengers, a spread attractively presented and accompanied by bottles of champagne. The tone is light for the moment, larceny served with courtesy and style with only the bankers left feeling sore. Yet just as the genre itself was firmly focused on those final years of the open frontier, the fences were popping up in the west and the gate would soon be closed on such Robin Hood romanticism. The juggernaut driving this relentless march toward modernity was the railroad, the unstoppable iron horse that would punch its way through from coast to coast. The townsfolk of Carson City are fearful of what may follow in the wake of the railroad, hoping to cling for as long as possible to the familiarity of the stagecoach lines despite their vulnerability in the face of determined raiders. Jeff Kincaid (Randolph Scott) is the engineer hired by the rail bosses to build the line through the rugged mountainous terrain and add another link in the chain of civilization gradually snaking its way across a continent.

Where does Carson City rank in relation to the other films André de Toth made in collaboration with Randolph Scott? Well, it is neither the best nor the worst of those half dozen pictures so I would have to place it comfortably in the middle. It isn’t an especially complex story, it doesn’t ask its star to dig too deep within and the villains are simply villainous and no more. Still, it is what could be termed an easy watch, with a plot which develops in a straightforward manner that is satisfying even if it’s never especially surprising. De Toth has the scenes in town looking good and the Bronson Canyon and Iverson Ranch locations feel like the well recognized landmarks one passes on the way to a visit with an old friend. It’s colorful, pacy and full of incident – stagecoach and train robberies, a couple of brawls, several shootouts and an atmospheric mine rescue – and the shift in tone from the light, airy beginning to something darker and more dangerous later on is effected seamlessly.

Randolph Scott’s more memorable parts saw him exploring layers of his own private morality, but Carson City is a much more straightforward assignment. The character of Kincaid is one of his clear-eyed and uncomplicated adventurers. Scott could play that kind of noble westerner practically blindfolded and he sails through the movie with a graceful assurance. I am unsure how many on screen railroads he built or how many miles of telegraph wire he strung down the years but it must have been a lot. The only hint of personal conflict comes via his increasingly strained relationship with his young half-brother played by Richard Webb. Even here the envy and resentment grows out of Webb’s own sense of inferiority rather than anything in Scott’s character. The villains are a perpetually scowling and dangerous James Millican and an extremely buttery Raymond Massey, the latter suckering everyone into believing his soft geniality is genuine and not just a smokescreen to conceal his icy ruthlessness. In one of her few dramatic parts, singer Lucille Norman is the newspaperwoman driving a wedge between Scott and Webb. She does fine and, on this showing anyway, I reckon it’s a pity she didn’t make more movies.

Carson City can be found on DVD via the Warner Archive and there are Spanish and Italian editions available as well. Even if it doesn’t labor the point or dwell on the implications to any extent, the story is part of that fairly large body of westerns dealing with the drive towards civilization, modernity and the rule of law. All of that may underpin the story but this is a piece of entertainment first and foremost and it certainly delivers on that. So, while Carson City is not the weightiest of Randolph Scott’s westerns, it does highlight the appeal of the star and consequently offers plenty of enjoyment.

The Revolt of Mamie Stover

I want to start by saying I have never read the book by William Bradford Huie which The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956) is adapted from. In fact, it’s only recently that I had the opportunity to see the movie itself. I point this out because I understand some critics were displeased with the film on release due to its failure to stick as closely to the source as they would have liked. Yes, this is an area of discussion which has arisen before now on this site, and I imagine it will come up again. Personally, I am backing no horse in this race and am simply looking at the movie as a work of cinema in its own right.

It’s 1941 in San Francisco and the USA has yet to enter the Second World War. Mamie Stover (Jane Russell) is on her way to the docks to catch a boat to Honolulu and she’s headed there with an escort, a nice shiny police car is dropping her off and making sure she doesn’t miss the sailing. As Hugo Friedhofer’s sensually jazzy score kicks in, it is apparent that she has, in essence, been declared persona non grata by the authorities and invited to leave town. The reason is never spelled out, but the lewd references made about her on board, and of course her subsequent employment when she reaches her destination, imply that she is a prostitute of some notoriety. Speaking of destinations, this is an aspect which goes to the heart of the movie in many ways. The voyage to Hawaii sees Mamie making the acquaintance of Jim Blair (Richard Egan), a writer headed home to the islands after selling the rights to his book in Hollywood. In a sense, both of these characters are on their way home, although Mamie’s path there is the more circuitous of the two. There follows an almost inevitable shipboard romance and an equally predictable parting of the ways as soon as the ship docks. Jim is going back to his life high on the hill, with a well-bred girl (Joan Leslie) waiting for him. Mamie is off to work as a ‘hostess’ in the dance hall and clip joint run by Bertha Parchman (Agnes Moorehead). Just as surely as Jim and Mamie drift apart, fate’s long and winding road has it in mind for these two to meet again. With the storm clouds of war gathering, and their respective ambitions suggesting they have no business being together, the spark of attraction is still alive. However, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and all that follows, they look to be taking separate roads again – Jim is off to war and Mamie seizes the opportunity to buy up as much property as she can afford at rock-bottom prices. And so it goes, back and forth for a while, patriot and profiteer drawn to each other by sheer animal attraction and yet always moving towards different destinations.

Raoul Walsh makes great use of the wide screen in The Revolt of Mamie Stover, switching between telling close-ups and carefully selected medium shots, only rarely crowding the frame and maintaining the intimacy of the story at all times. Leo Tover’s cinematography is frankly stunning, from the breathtaking backgrounds of the Hawaiian locations to the rich and sumptuous color in Bertha’s house of ill-repute. Sydney Boehm’s script is a characteristically strong one, keeping within the boundaries of the production code but still ensuring the adult themes are not watered down any more than necessary. A bit of reading around here and there tells me that the source novel presents more of a critique of society than the movie does. Not having read it, I can’t comment on that, but I can say that the focus of the film is very much on the people, on the individuals, how they grow and what they learn along the way, something which tends to make a film more involving.

Once again, Walsh defies his reputation as a macho director and demonstrates how well he dealt with films which placed women right at the heart of the story. The melodrama that drives it all  is liberally laced with humor, both broad and subtle, and there is a distinctly humanistic feel to the way the characters are drawn and observed. Neither Walsh nor Boehm are interested in handing out some trite moralistic message. The movie looks at people, warts and all, neither excusing nor explaining them, and the ending, in that classically cyclical fashion, brings us right back to the point where it all began, but the crucial difference is that these characters whose lives have been traced on the screen have grown and developed.

Jane Russell was making some varied and interesting movies around this time, including The Tall Men (also for Walsh) and Foxfire. However, she was soon to move to television and only later drift back to the movies for a cameo playing herself in Ralph Nelson’s rather good Fate is the Hunter and then a couple of pretty depressing A C Lyles westerns.  Mamie Stover offered her a good part as a woman juggling her love for money and material success with her love for Jim Blair, and winning something entirely different and unexpected in the end. Richard Egan brings a tough confidence to his role, and achieves a quiet dignity that is very admirable in the climactic scene. Agnes Moorehead is a highlight as the cunning and hard as nails proprietress, displaying as much burnished brass as her startlingly blonde hair. Joan Leslie was another who was about to move to television after a long and successful career on the big screen but, like her character, she is largely sidelined. And last but not least, Michael Pate scowls most effectively as the bespectacled thug using heavy-handed tactics to keep Bertha’s girls in line.

The Revolt of Mamie Stover was handed a Blu-ray release some years ago by Twilight Time. I never managed to pick up a copy and I don’t believe it has come out anywhere else on that format. However, there are copies to be had from Spain, not ideal copies but watchable enough and in the correct aspect ratio. It took me a long time to catch up with this film and I enjoyed seeing it at last. Walsh, Tover and Boehm combine well behind the cameras, and the cast doesn’t disappoint in front either. This is an entertaining and grown-up movie that sidesteps the typical sugar-coated Hollywood ending yet still manages to tie everything up very satisfactorily.

The People Against O’Hara

“You can’t stop what’s coming.”

Near the end of the 2007 neo-noir No Country for Old Men the homespun truism quoted above is shared with the lead character, a man seeking to make some sort of sense out of a world that is not only passing him by but practically speeding off over the horizon. That feeling of inevitability, of random and relentless occurrences that cannot be avoided but only faced and dealt with if or when they appear, is something which has fueled film noir right from the beginning. The People Against O’Hara (1951) is one of those fatalistic studies of the inevitable, where the unraveling of a crime goes hand in hand with the unraveling of a man’s life.

New York streets by night, rain slicked and neon drenched, a grizzled seaman contemptuous of the noisy jukebox drifts out of a bar that could have been painted by Edward Hopper. Out on the street he pauses by the kerbside and is startled by the sound of gunfire from across the way, where a killer and his victim are silhouetted in the glare spilling from a doorway overlooking the sidewalk. The identity of the dead man is soon established, and the forensics team are quick to quick to obtain evidence of who had been driving the car used for the getaway. There is no doubt about the name of the wheelman, but establishing who did the shooting may not be such a cut and dried affair. The prime suspect is the owner of that vehicle, Johnny O’Hara (James Arness). The viewer knows he can’t have done the deed as he is shown out of town trying to break up for good with a distraught and emotional girl. And there, in the words of a well-known prince of Denmark, is the rub: that clinging, desperate girl is the wife of a notorious gangland boss (Eduardo Ciannelli), a man known to visit unspeakable and horrific vengeance on anyone stupid enough to cross him. Under the circumstances, it should not come as any surprise to see O’Hara make a run for it when as yet unidentified but armed men approach him on his way home. Nor is it hard to understand his steadfast refusal to offer an alibi for the time the murder took place, not when he is charged, not when a blatantly crooked witness falsely implicates him, and not even when he finds himself on trial for his life.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is an extraordinarily delicate situation, one requiring deft legal skills if the accused is to have any chance of beating the rap and remaining in one piece. The O’Hara family’s hopes are pinned on one man, noted attorney James Curtayne (Spencer Tracy). However, this may be a distinctly shaky foundation on which to build anything, least of all the fate of a man facing a capital charge. Curtayne has retreated from criminal trial work, the pressures and strains of which had exacerbated his alcohol dependency. Still, it’s a rare Irishman who can cast off the cloak of sentimentality with ease, and the pitiful entreaty of old acquaintances fallen on hard times is a siren call that is hard to resist. The odds are poor though; the case, despite being shored up by a wall of deceit, is a tough one, the client is paralyzed by an unholy combination of fear and nobility, the D.A. (John Hodiak) is sharp and dedicated, and Curtayne knows he is slipping, that the ground is falling away beneath him while he is too weary and damaged to regain a firm footing. It’s that inevitability, a remorseless sliding sensation, one which although it cannot be halted may yet offer one last shot at a form of redemption.

The People Against O’Hara was the first of three films that John Sturges and Spencer Tracy would make together, being followed by the better known Bad Day at Black Rock and The Old Man and the Sea. It hails from that relatively early period in Sturges’ career when he was working in all kinds of genres. He would really be in his element within a few years as the widescreen process took off and he quickly became one of its top practitioners with a wonderful eye for composition and placement. The pictures he moved on to direct often afforded him the opportunity to incorporate landscapes and outdoor shooting in general into his visual toolkit, and The People Against O’Hara also features some excellent use of genuine Manhattan locations. Having John Alton as cinematographer practically guarantees a strong visual aesthetic. Equally adept in color or black and white (his work with Anthony Mann is justly celebrated but he created some terrific images for Vincente Minnelli too, for example) he effortlessly brings a classic noir look to Sturges’ movie. The opening and closing scenes in particular are bathed in impenetrable, stifling shadow, characters in the foreground having their attention drawn into and fixed upon what Alton has highlighted deep within the background, and the viewer is hooked and reeled in in exactly the same way.

When I think of Spencer Tracy in legal dramas I automatically picture him in a couple of late career movies for Stanley Kramer (Inherit the Wind & Judgment at Nuremberg) and I suspect I’m not alone in doing so. As such, the image of characters with strong moral convictions and a deep-seated personal nobility is conjured up. Therefore, it’s something of a shock to see him don a rather tarnished crown in The People Against O’Hara. Here Tracy is not so much the staunch and steadfast pillar of legal ethics as a compromised, if not quite crumbling, monument to former greatness. He’s playing a man running on the fumes of a reputation, someone we get to meet on the downside of his career, shaken by alcoholism and ill-health and all the insecurities and frailties that come along for the ride. It’s perfectly clear that his heart is in the right place, although his willingness to head back into the criminal courts may be motivated not only by old loyalties and a sense of altruism, but also by an undeniable hunger for the old battleground and the possibility of new, revitalizing victories. So the honor and nobility are there, but they have acquired a vaguely seedy quality, coated by a film of failure and uncertainty, and Tracy communicates all that so well in those courtroom scenes where his frustration at his own faltering efforts and foggy thinking leave him humiliated and desperate, witnessing his hopes disintegrating before his eyes yet fully aware of his own impotence in the face of catastorophe. It’s that encroaching despair that drives him back towards the bottle and poor judgment, and opens the door to the dangerous road he ultimately opts for in order to justify his client’s faith and redeem himself.

John Hodiak is quiet, competent and scrupulous to a fault as the D.A. whose professional life is, by contrast, following a very different trajectory. The easy option in a story such as this would be to have the D.A. detouring down devious or flat out dishonest legal byroads. However, the calm decency which Hodiak conveys so effectively emphasizes the crisis unfolding in the life of his rival. It is not only the clever writing though, the coolly underplayed performance makes what might have been just another clichéd role into something real and credible. Similarly, old pro Pat O’Brien portrays his veteran cop in a nuanced and sympathetic way, neither as saint nor thug but as a normal human being able to empathize with the flawed people around him. Diana Lynn’s turn as Tracy’s anxious and devoted daughter is attractively done too; her big scene confronting her father as he is on the point of crashing spectacularly off the wagon provided an opportunity to ramp up the drama and she hits the right emotional balance in those moments.

The trend in film noir in the 1950s saw a slow drift away from the dark personal dilemmas that had been commonly explored in the preceding decade towards the broader social malaise represented by organized crime. A movie such as The People Against O’Hara feels like something of a halfway house. The mob connection heavily impacts the lives of the characters but the main focus of the film remains on the trials of Curtayne, the literal one he’s fighting in the courtroom and the spiritual one being waged for his heart and soul. All told, it makes for an attractive blend. Mob related material has a tendency to lean into the showier side in general and one of the flashier performances comes courtesy of William Campbell’s cheap hood. He is all smirks and smarm, faux indignation jostling for position with sugarcoated insincerity, adding layers of slime and a sickening unctuousness. Considerably higher up the criminal food chain comes Eduardo Ciannelli. He brings real menace to his part, those saurian features hinting at medieval malice. Even little throwaway scenes like his sharp exchange with an apparent laborer careless enough to splash his expensive clothes, leading to him dismissively talking about this “paisano” and making cracks about cutting out tongues, before revealing that the pleading supplicant is in fact his own father carry a real chill. In support, Jay C Flippen’s broadly sketched Scandinavian sailor is a fun addition and there are small parts for Arthur Shields (who contributed many a telling and memorable moment in a number of films for John Ford among others), Richard Anderson and, in a practically “blink and you’ll miss him” role, a young Charles Bronson.

The People Against O’Hara was released on DVD in the US by Warner Brothers as part of the Archive Collection a decade ago, and there is a Spanish edition on the market too. It is not a film that gets talked about all that often, probably getting lost in among other more celebrated titles in the respective filmographies of Spencer Tracy and John Sturges. I like it quite a bit as it hits a lot of the themes and motifs that draw me to the movies, and the quality of the personnel involved makes it undeniably attractive.

Call Northside 777

To quote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small.” But what happens if the person trapped between those relentless millstones is actually innocent? What if the pitiless wheels of justice are slowly crushing the wrong man? That’s the conundrum at the heart of Henry Hathaway’s Call Northside 777 (1948). It offers up a premise which is undeniably noir and is frequently referred to as such. I have hung that label on it myself here, not only for the sake of convenience but due to some of its visuals and, of course, that nightmarish scenario on which it is founded. To be honest, it is a socially aware crime picture first and foremost, and I quite understand that some may object to calling it anything else.

The credits are stark, with an austere, no-nonsense quality – crisply typed letters stamped clearly on plain white paper. It’s a matter-of-fact approach mirrored by the voice-over and the documentary tone of the opening, one which takes us back to the final days of the prohibition era in Chicago. In case anyone is unaware of the background, the violence and rampant lawlessness of those days is deftly evoked before attention is focused on one particular killing. The winter of 1932 saw the murder of a beat cop in the parlor of a dingy speakeasy. The bare bones of the affair are laid out before us as well as the arrest and assembly of evidence against the prime suspect, one Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte). Both he and his alleged partner in crime are duly convicted and sentenced to 99 years imprisonment. That’s that, one might say. However, this is only the beginning of our story, and the narrative really kicks in with the appearance of a classified ad in one of the city dailies offering a reward of $5000 for information leading to the exoneration of Wiecek. This catches the eye of newspaper editor Kelly (Lee J Cobb), who asks one of his reporters to look into it. The reporter is a man by the name of McNeal (James Stewart), one of those flip and casual hacks who has yet to hear a sob story he’s not dubious of. What he finds is an old Polish lady (Kasia Orzazewski) scrubbing floors; she’s spent the last eleven long years of her life doing this based on her unwavering faith in her son and her iron certainty that he is no murderer. Her idea was to raise enough money to spark someone’s interest in the case, and if it’s not enough then she plans to keep on skivvying till it is. McNeal is an old pro and has grown a thick hide of cynicism, but he’s not without a heart. True devotion and faith in people is a rare currency and being confronted with it like this plants a seed in what’s left of the reporter’s conscience. What follows is an absorbing search in the past and the present for the truth and a campaign to overturn a miscarriage of justice, starting out as a slow walk and gradually building up to a desperate sprint towards vindication.

Henry Hathaway was a pioneer of the documentary noir approach in the post-war period, with The House on 92nd Street often cited as one of the, if not the, very first examples of this style of filmmaking. While I wouldn’t say I am a fan of the technique on all occasions, it can be powerful and effective when used well. Call Northside 777 is one such occasion, the measured pace and the confidence to allow the natural drama of the story sweep the viewer along is always in evidence. Hathaway was a genuinely great director, a man with a wonderful sense of cinema’s possibilities; he coaxed fine performances from actors time and again and had a way of drawing one into the stories he put up on the screen. The virtual absence of music outside of the credits and the ambient sounds of cheap bars, the assurance of his framing and shot selection, all combine to create suspense from something as mundane as a light flashing on a switchboard, or a needle flickering on a polygraph chart. His spatial awareness is superb too, surely no-one could have better communicated the cold despairing sterility of the prison complex than he did with that shot of endless blank cages opening out onto silent and empty gangways. Then in the latter stages, as the hunt moves to the seedy underbelly of the city, Joe MacDonald’s cinematography conjures fantastic visions of shadow-draped decay.

Without wishing to traipse over old ground yet again, there is such a richness to the screen work of James Stewart after he returned from service in WWII. Capra and It’s a Wonderful Life saw him burrowing into deep reserves and some of that comes through in Call Northside 777 too. Hitchcock and Mann got the very best out of him but Hathaway had him tap into some of his inner conflict as well, just not as far. The narrative requires a shift in his character’s position as the story plays out and it’s to his credit that this is achieved with a smoothness that feels wholly credible. Lee J Cobb could sometimes slip into “big” performances, which though enjoyable can be distracting too. However, he’s nicely restrained as the man whose quiet certainty keeps the investigation moving forward. There’s a playful aspect to his relationship with Stewart, highlighted by his tendency to bend the truth about his soft heart, and Stewart’s making sure he knows he won’t be taken in by it.

Richard Conte was another who was capable of brashness and showiness, but he keeps all of that carefully under wraps. His is a remarkably quiet performance, consistent with a man conditioned to keeping his head down and aware that taking the long view is the best way to survive. His one moment of breaking through that cautious front comes when Stewart has thoughtlessly jeopardized the cocoon of respectability he has painstakingly built around his former family, and even here his anger is contained and dignified.  Helen Walker has a simple role as Stewart’s wife, nothing demanding but she brings warmth to it. There are small parts for John McIntire and E G Marshall among others. I also want to mention the work of Kasia Orzazewski as Conte’s mother. It’s the kind of part where it would have been easy to allow an excess of sentiment to spill out. Yet the actress holds that in check, her pride and grit and sorrow are all apparent but they never overwhelm and consequently she touches the viewer’s heart every bit as much as she did that of Stewart’s skeptical reporter.

Call Northside 777 has long been available on DVD. To the best of my knowledge, the only version on Blu-ray is a German disc, which doesn’t sound as though it represents a major upgrade. Seeing as this is a Fox title , it’s hard to say if there is any possibility of further editions appearing. This is a movie I first saw back in my early teens. It gripped me at the time and the intervening years haven’t altered my opinion of it any. It is a fine picture and well worth a revisit.

The Man from Bitter Ridge

Treading well worn paths is a practice that tends to be looked on with a certain disdain with regard to any artistic endeavor, and with good reason. If familiarity does not necessarily have breed contempt, it can surely sap the enthusiasm and interest of the viewer. While that may be broadly true, it should also be acknowledged that watching movies is not an activity we indulge in for only one reason. As a rule, the better the film, the greater the challenge or stimulation offered, but that is not to say that  work providing the comfort and reassurance of the familiar has no worth. The Man from Bitter Ridge (1955) breaks no new ground, the situations and characters are all recognizable “types” that even casual western watchers will have seen on countless occasions. For all that though, it is the kind of movie that is hard to actively dislike.

The story begins with something of a bang, namely the explosion that brings down a tree and blocks the trail of a stagecoach. The purpose is to facilitate a robbery, one carried out with precision and ruthlessness. A man ends up dead for noticing more than he ought to and the thieves make their escape. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say all but one of the thieves. A passing stranger suffers the misfortune of being held up by one of the fugitives who finds himself in need of a mount as his own horse has gone lame. This stranger is Jeff Carr (Lex Barker) and his ill-starred encounter means he almost winds up being lynched in error.  All of this happens in the first five minutes or so and a lot of plot detail is packed in here,  not least the fact the stage has been robbed by those working for Rance Jackman (John Dehner), local bigwig and candidate for sheriff in the upcoming election. To further complicate matters, the posse members who were so keen on stringing up Carr in a hurry are headed up by Jackman’s younger brother Linc (Warren Stevens). There’s probably enough story right there but the script is arguably overloaded as the idea of a corrupt man seeking ever greater power and influence is mixed in with a simmering feud between cattlemen and sheep herders, the latter group represented by Alec Black (Stephen McNally). Of course no yarn can be truly complete without some love interest, ideally involving conflict. That comes courtesy of a romantic triangle, the points of which are Carr, Black and Holly Kenton (Mara Corday), another of the sheep herders. As such, we have a decidedly tangled skein on our hands, although it is all unraveled (via brawls, gunfights, fire and fury) in a largely satisfactory manner by the time the credits roll about an hour and a quarter later.

Mention the name of Jack Arnold to movie fans and the chances are you’ll hear comments about such Sci-Fi classics such as It Came from Outer Space, The Incredible Shrinking Man or The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Nevertheless, as was the case with most directors of the time, he worked in a range of genres and turned out some fine pictures in all of them. Among his movies are a handful of westerns; Red Sundown and No Name on the Bullet are right out of the top drawer and are highly recommended. The Man from Bitter Ridge is, without question, a lesser effort. I prefer to look at a movie in terms of what it is and what it aims for as opposed to what it isn’t or doesn’t aspire to be. Still, there’s no denying that there’s not much depth to this one. I may be using the wrong label here, but I tend to think of films like this as matinee movies – straightforward, no-frills, unpretentious pictures that tell their stories in a pacy and entertaining way, no more and no less. Taken on those terms, it’s fine and does what it says on the tin. Another bonus is that “look” which is to be found in most Universal-International westerns, the visual aesthetic is appealing and (again) familiar, the very least one might expect from a cinematographer as talented as Russell Metty.

As for the performances, Lex Barker followed up his stint as Tarzan with a number of western roles and he would do further work in the genre when he later moved to Europe, especially in Germany. His role here is of a type – an undercover operative for the stagecoach company – that Randolph Scott played on more than one occasion. Of course Barker had previously been cast opposite Scott a couple of years before in the more interesting Thunder Over the Plains for André De Toth. He cuts a heroic figure and acquits himself just fine in the action scenes, of which there is no shortage, but he’s probably a bit too sunny and upbeat. Stephen McNally is his typically sharp self, assured and polished and enjoying his time as one of the good guys.

Mara Corday is an actress I am always happy to see and she is very appealing as the pistol-packing sheep farmer who finds her affections trapped betwixt and between McNally and Barker . She was in the middle of a run of generally good movies at this point, although I have to say she had a far more absorbing part in Joseph Pevney’s Foxfire that same year. With regard to villainy, it’s difficult to go far wrong when there is a solid lineup composed of John Dehner, Ray Teal, Myron Healey and Warren Stevens available. Their characters are all entirely one-dimensional, but most entertainingly so.

The Man from Bitter Ridge was released on a handsome DVD some time ago by Koch Media in Germany, but I think that may have drifted out of print now and it appears to have been replaced by a Blu-ray from the same company. The older disc looks pretty good, offering a colorful widescreen presentation of this brisk and undemanding western. I know Jack Arnold made better and more original movies and The Man From Bitter Ridge shouldn’t be seen as representative of his work in general, but it is a relaxing and mostly fun watch, and sometimes that’s good enough.

Cry of the Hunted

It could be argued that every story is at heart a tale of pursuit, a fictional quest where the prize sought might be material (money, treasure, etc) or spiritual (love, contentment, redemption, revenge, and so on), or the quarry might be of the classic, and slipperiest variety: a human being. For the viewer, the race to capture or recapture a fugitive always tends to raise the dramatic stakes, providing scope for shifting sympathies and asking questions about the role of, and indeed the relationship between the hunter and the hunted. Such should be the case with Cry of the Hunted (1953), where both parties involved in this particular game of hide and seek come to realize that their objectives might be different to what they had initially believed. Yet this is only partially fulfilled and the result of it all is that the movie ends up pulling some of its punches.

Speaking of pulling punches, there’s not much of that in the early stages, when Lieutenant Tunner (Barry Sullivan) tries to get convicted getaway driver Jory (Vittorio Gassman) to dish the dirt on his accomplices. The outcome is a bruising and punishing encounter, but one which makes it clear that both men, despite their entrenched positions on opposing sides of the law, have a grudging mutual respect. A traffic accident in downtown Los Angeles affords Jory the chance to escape, making use of the iconic Angels Flight in Bunker Hill, and he grabs his opportunity with both hands. The galled lawmen now have red faces to go with their grey suits and the only way to cool this situation is to arrange for the recapture of the prisoner as soon as possible. Jory is a man of the Bayou, the Louisiana marshland where the alligators aren’t the only threat, and it’s not hard to figure out he will be heading back there, back to his home and his wife. And so it is that Tunner is sent across the country to bring the fugitive back. He’s on top of things soon enough, almost laying Jory by the heels when he intercepts the freight train he is riding, and then tracks him to his shack in the swamps. A shade too much overconfidence is his undoing though, turning his back at the wrong moment leads to a concussion, a bellyful of filthy water, and a stay in hospital. All of this means the trail will need to be picked up once again, this time in the company of a colleague (William Conrad) who is keen to grab his job.

The entire setup here is most promising. The plot has a good deal of potential, the setting offers danger and atmosphere, and Joseph H Lewis as director always holds out the hope of some interesting visual flourishes. Lewis does get some value from the swampy surroundings, and the short sequence involving Sullivan’s fever dream (a shot from which can be seen above) is attractive even if it doesn’t actually add much to the story. However, for all that promise and potential, the finished movie falls a bit short. Now, it is never boring and Lewis keeps the pace up and the running time down, but the development of the plot is rather flat and predictable. Even a low budget effort such as The Ride Back (coincidentally, also featuring William Conrad in a prominent role) flips expectations to an extent by having hunter and hunted virtually changing places and gaining some personal insight as a result. In Cry of the Hunted, however, there is none of that.

Sullivan starts out as a well-meaning and conscientious guy with a hard edge and he never wavers or strays from that path, winding up in essentially the same place as he began. The part is a solid one, playing up the brash needling side of himself that Sullivan often showed and shoring it up with a strong core of decency and humanity. I haven’t seen a lot of Gassman’s work, which probably says much about my limited exposure to Italian cinema, but his character does get to undergo a touch more growth. I emphasize the fact that it is only a touch more though; there’s never really much doubt that his heart is in the right place or that he has it within him to come good. I reckon the writers missed a trick in the last act and should have had Sullivan laid up with an injury and needing to be saved by Gassman rather than the other way around. I seem to be on a bit of a William Conrad kick just now and he is good value as Sullivan’s subordinate and competitor. He seems to have been set to take on a meaner role (goading Gassman in the early stages, beating up a witness) but the script only leads him a short way down that particular path before allowing his better nature to take charge. Polly Bergen (Cape Fear, Escape from Fort Bravo) drifts in and out of the picture in a small role as Sullivan’s wife.

Cry of the Hunted is an MGM production, but it was not one of the studio’s top line pictures. It’s a small affair with some attractive location shooting and a tight, self-contained cast. Even second string movies from such a big studio have a fair bit of polish and it’s interesting to see MGM branching out into this more socially aware material, although it is nowhere near as challenging as it could have been when one takes into account the strong initial premise. I think it is fair to say it never really fires on all cylinders and it feels like a minor work from Lewis. Nevertheless, any opportunity to spend an hour and a quarter or thereabouts in the company of actors like Barry Sullivan and William Conrad is not something I would ever consider a chore. As for availability, it should be easy enough to locate seeing as the Warner Brothers Archive released a good-looking copy a few years ago. So, it’s definitely worth checking out and enjoyable enough as far as it goes, as long as it is approached with realistic expectations.

East Side, West Side

Crime has always acted as an effective hook to snare an audience. The reason? I guess it comes down to the challenge of being presented with a puzzle, even when it’s not an especially taxing one, that helps to draw in so many people. Even when the crime is not the principal feature of the movie it still adds a little spice, maybe broadening the overall appeal. East Side, West Side (1949) is at heart a slick melodrama, the kind that MGM was adept at making. Somewhere around the halfway mark it manages to work in a murder mystery, administering a shot in the arm to a plot which had been in danger of growing slightly listless and predictable.

The voice-over narration which introduces the movie has Jessie Bourne (Barbara Stanwyck) maintaining that the New York she inhabits is nothing special really, a place where people’s lives are mapped out in much the same way as they are in less celebrated towns. Yet the New York we are subsequently drawn into is different, it’s stylish and sophisticated and sleek, with well-to-do types very obviously doing well. Jessie Bourne is the daughter is one of the great ladies of Broadway, her husband Brandon (James Mason) is a successful financier with blue blood and all the polish and accomplishment it brings. The conversation appears as bright and dazzling as the crystal and china on her mother’s supper table, and every bit as brittle. That bright glaze that surrounds the Bournes is but a thin veneer, a superficial sheen that is riven with the kind of hairline cracks that are only visible when viewed outside of the honeyed glow of pampered privilege. You see, Brandon Bourne is an incorrigible philanderer and something of a lost soul, a man floundering in a sea of temptation, ostensibly in love with his wife yet powerless to resist the lure of forbidden fruit. The most persistent interloper in the Bournes’ garden is the relentlessly sexy Isabel Lorrison (Ava Gardner), a supreme huntress in the field of seduction. She had an affair with Brandon in the past before moving away but has now been let loose once again to prowl the streets and clubs of Manhattan. That she is stalking Brandon mercilessly is never in question, and his assertions that he’s a reformed character have a hollow ring, not least to his own ears.

Jessie Bourne’s wronged woman is on a different path though. Frustrated by her husbands serial infidelity while simultaneously paralyzed by her love for him and her inability to envisage a life without him, she appears to have reached an impasse. By a convoluted mix of coincidence and curiosity, she encounters mannequin Rosa Senta (Cyd Charisse), who in turn brings her into contact with Mark Dwyer (Van Heflin). Dwyer is a former policeman now working in some ill-defined role as an intelligence operative in post-war Europe. His arrival on the scene has a twofold effect, affording Jessie a glimpse of how her life could be without the constant fear of abandonment by her wayward husband and then later assuming a more professional role as an impromptu investigator when murder gatecrashes this elite atmosphere.

“That’s what you don’t get at home. That’s what you’ve missed isn’t it! It’s so tiresome being restrained and soft-spoken and gentlemanly. What you really want is to be a little rotten, like me!”

Those words, spoken with passion and animation, by Ava Gardner’s character at a decisive moment go some way towards clarifying the hold she has over Brandon Bourne. It’s a superb piece of casting really, Gardner was near her peak at this stage and commands attention whenever she is on screen. It is quite impossible to take your eyes off her and it’s very easy to see how Mason’s playboy is drawn inexorably to this smouldering siren. She is earthy and forthright, candid with regard to what she wants and every bit as frank in her assessment of herself. Essentially, she is the polar opposite of Jessie’s contained refinement. Even though the main focus of the story is on Jessie’s three day trek to self-belief and her realization of her own worth as an individual, it’s not the most compelling feature. The part is well enough defined and Stanwyck’s work is up to her usual standard, but it’s a relatively straightforward one. It would be unfair, I think, to refer to it as bland but there’s a touch of inevitability to the path traced, not to mention a dearth of internal conflict.

James Mason, on the other hand, does get something meatier and more complex to sink his teeth into. This was one of his earliest Hollywood films and his suave ambiguity was well used. His character’s acknowledgment of his flaws and weaknesses invites the viewer to weigh this man up, to consider him rather than merely sit in judgement. It’s the cocktail of arrogance, insecurity and self-awareness that lends a wretched and abject aspect to the final image we have of him, a portrait of vanity bereft.

Van Heflin’s role is a little odd or contrived. It’s almost as though he is parachuted into the picture as some transient righter of wrongs, a bluff and hearty action man, ace investigator and sage with a neat sideline in homespun philosophy and cooking skills. His determination to brush off a deeply smitten Cyd Charisse for, let’s face it, some pretty spurious and unconvincing reasons is difficult to swallow. Then after assuring Stanwyck he is not in the business of wooing other men’s wives he proceeds to do just that before departing the scene again. I can’t fault Heflin’s playing but I have to scratch my head over some of the logic surrounding how his character is written. That said, I’m never displeased to see him in a movie and there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s not every day you have the opportunity to see him involved in a punch up with Beverly Michaels. Married to the producer Voldemar Vetluguin and making her screen debut, Michaels arrives fairly late in the story but is pivotal in bring about the resolution. And finally, there’s some well crafted support offered by Gale Sondergaard, Nancy Reagan (still Nancy Davis at this stage) and William Conrad.

East Side, West Side was released on DVD years ago as part of a Barbara Stanwyck box set by Warner Brothers so it shouldn’t be that hard to locate. There are undoubtedly better melodramas around but it has that MGM sheen that is certainly attractive, boosted by Mervyn LeRoy’s tight direction and a Miklos Rozsa score. The crime element lifts it in the latter stages and there’s a lot to be said for any chance to spend an hour and three quarters in the company of a cast as classy and accomplished as this picture boasts.

Conflict

Film noir meets Freud, presented as an inverted mystery. I suppose that just about sums up what viewers can reasonably expect to take away from Conflict (1945). It might also be helpful to keep in mind that this is a movie where plausibility is going to be stretched. In short, if you are the type of person who balks at the unashamed use of contrivance, who yearns for grit and realism, then this almost certainly is not the film for you. On the other hand, those looking for a relatively undemanding confection that plays around the periphery of film noir will probably enjoy themselves.

There is something quintessentially noir about rain. Perhaps it’s down to the heavy, brooding skies, swollen and sullen with the weight within, or that sense of some indefinable force lashing at us. Or maybe it’s just the way the cinematic version seems to smear and blur the lens, leaving our perception of characters and situations, and indeed the entire ethical universe laid out before us, a little unclear. Such is the case as the credits roll, just before the camera zeroes in on the finishing touches being added to a letter of invitation to Richard and Kathryn Mason (Humphrey Bogart and Rose Hobart). It’s from their friend Mark Hamilton (Sydney Greenstreet) on the occasion of their fifth wedding anniversary. Even if it’s a couple of years early, Richard Mason is already starting to feel that famed extramarital itch, in this case prompted by the presence of his wife’s younger sister Evelyn (Alexis Smith). This unsavory fact has just been hauled out in the open and so it’s with a certain sourness that the couple, and the unsuspecting sibling, head off for a night of food, drink and the kind of brittle civility that only the well-heeled and dissatisfied can carry off with aplomb. Well, having dined under a cloud of charmingly concealed bitterness, the drive back home is interrupted by an accident that segues into one of those sequences that has the protagonist’s thoughts and experiences reflected through the images and words of others, spinning as a vortex before the camera, drawing both him and us ever deeper.

On awakening, as the faces of doctor and nurse swim into view, we learn that Richard was the only one who suffered any significant injury. While recuperating from the broken leg that everybody believes has left him temporarily incapacitated, he hatches a plan to rid himself of his wife and leave himself free to pursue Evelyn. It’s no spoiler to point out that this is where the inverted mystery kicks in. We see Richard Mason go about the plotting of his wife’s demise and then get to see the gradual chipping away at his confidence, the doubts that circle and creep ever nearer till, finally, he can no longer be entirely sure how firm his grip on reality or sanity is. It is somehow fitting that he is drawn down into the darkness and despair of a literal and figurative abyss to confront his guilt and culpability before heading back towards the light, back to the fate he richly deserves.

Conflict is derived from a story entitled The Pentacle, co-written by Alfred Neumann and Robert Siodmak. Siodmak’s name is enough to catch my attention, although I suppose it was mainly the casting of Bogart that drew me to the movie when I first saw it some time back in the mid-1980s. As with most inverted mysteries, much of the enjoyment lies in seeing how the best laid plans can unravel, and the clue that first sets the hounds on Mason’s trail grows out of a delicious slice of hubris. Curtis Bernhardt would have a very strong run of melodramas and films noir from My Reputation right through to Payment on Demand, although I reckon Sirocco (also with Bogart) is a misfire. His direction here is impressive at times, with a few showy tracking shots to pulls the audience into the picture, and of course the set piece of the murder on the twisty and mist shrouded mountain pass.

It has been said that Bogart was not keen on the film and was actually reluctant to make it, but he gives a fairly solid performance for all that. He is good at getting across the abrasive and impatient aspects of his character, and the transition from cocksure killer to desperate paranoiac is well realized. The only point at which I felt he hammed it up and lost some credibility was the scene where he tries to emotionally browbeat Alexis Smith, and even there one could perhaps argue that the whole point was to highlight the driven creepiness of Mason. Alexis Smith seems a bit wasted in a role that asks her to do little more than wring her hands on cue and prevaricate, none of which is the fault of the actress herself. Conversely, Rose Hobart is given a juicier part with at least some wounded pride and suspicion to sustain her, but her screen time is necessarily limited. Sydney Greenstreet is never less than a joy to watch in anything and his sympathetic part as the avuncular doctor with a piercing, probing intelligence and a penchant for cultivating roses feels like a dry run for his later role on radio as Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe – just remove the avuncular aspect and swap out the roses for orchids. Charles Drake would go on to do better things in the 1950s at Universal-International but his young suitor in Conflict never rises much above the level  of “aw shucks” guilelessness.

Conflict ought to be easy enough to track down for viewing, either from the Warner Archive or from various European labels. It isn’t the best example of Bogart’s work but he’s good enough in it and he is always watchable anyway. Sure the plot is contrived and the whole thing is loaded with the cod psychology which was popular at the time. However, for those happy to embrace these features and just go with the flow there is quite a lot of pleasure and entertainment to be had.

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.