Whirlpool

Whirlpool (1950) is another borderline film noir. It is  a stylishly shot crime movie with a cast whose credentials speak of a strong pedigree in the school of dark cinema, directed by Otto Preminger, who was certainly no stranger to noir. I suppose it might be seen as more of a whodunit (or should that actually be a “how did he do it”, given the seemingly unbreakable alibi involved) and it might not feature all the classic ingredients, but the strong emphasis on the psychological aspects of the story as well as its examination of matters relating to trust and manipulation nudge it in the direction of film noir.

It takes a thief. Well, the story opens with a thief taken, even if it looks as though psychoanalyst’s wife Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney) is too classy and polished to fit that particular bill. Nevertheless, that’s what she is, having been spotted, trailed and then approached by a store detective after walking out of a shop with an expensive piece of jewellery stashed away in her purse. Since she is not short of money, it becomes evident that she is a kleptomaniac, acting under the influence of some private compulsion. This fact is pointed out by a convenient witness to the embarrassing episode, one David Korvo (Jose Ferrer). While he may not be clad in shining armor he does have a smooth line in persuasive patter, more than enough to allow him to ride to the rescue of this felon in distress. One might have thought that a woman married to an eminent psychiatrist (Richard Conte) would be ideally placed to obtain the finest treatment, but no film noir would be complete without the presence of secrets someone wants to keep buried. Such is the case with Ann Sutton, whose success in suppressing traumas suffered in the past has left her with little appetite for shattering the illusion of the perfect wife she has carefully constructed around herself.  So what is Korvo’s motivation in all this? Despite his protestations that he’s no blackmailer, and his very public determination to display his innocence, his money is made via fortune telling and hypnosis. What becomes increasingly apparent is that this man is a master manipulator, and that Ann Sutton is about to become just one more cog in a devious and murderous scheme.

Otto Preminger had memorably worked with Gene Tierney on Laura and they would collaborate again on Where the Sidewalk Ends and, somewhat later, on Advise & Consent. Preminger was good at tales of damaged people and as he moved into the 1950s he was drawn to scripts that featured ever more complex individuals and circumstances. Ben Hecht’s adaptation of a Guy Endore novel is characteristically slick and the plot, while twisty, always moves smoothly. In noir terms, Preminger would do much more interesting things with the idea of the troubled and criminally inclined female in the superlative Angel Face a few years down the line. In a sense, Whirlpool feels like something of a throwback; as much a puzzle plot murder mystery as regular film noir, it combines a critique of quackery and charlatanism, which had waxed and waned in popularity from the early years of the twentieth century on, with that kind of slightly reverential take on Freudian psychoanalysis that was in fashion in the post-war period. The focus is on the well-heeled and leisured classes, people with good jobs, nice clothes and the time and money to indulge in some lightweight self-analysis. If the idea of admitting that all may not be as idyllic as the shiny new decade promised to a psychiatrist (even if that person happens to be one’s spouse) was something to be reserved for a different type of person,  consulting some flimflam artist like Korvo was acceptable. Perhaps it was a way of acknowledging the existence of post-war angst without having to take it too seriously.

Knowing how hard Gene Tierney had to struggle with mental health issues in real life gives the movie a bit of an edge. It adds poignancy to those moments where she is expressing dismay at her instability, a feeling that this is not merely a woman playing a part but someone who is in fact living it out. Richard Conte comes across rather stiff at times, which is probably the way his part was written – too much empathy too readily expressed at too early a stage would not have made sense given the reluctance of Tierney’s character to confide in him. Nevertheless, he does seem a little too controlled and reined in, particularly in the scenes where he’s confronting Ferrer’s smugness. On the other hand, it could be said that this contributes to an air of tension. The meeting between a recuperating Ferrer, taunting and needling even as he sweats in pain, and a deeply wounded Conte does have a palpable undercurrent of menace. Ferrer is well cast, unctuous and dissembling, adept at the kind of emotional larceny that easily outstrips Tierney’s petty pilfering.

The main supporting part is filled by Charles Bickford, someone whose name pops up here from time to time and whose presence in a movie I generally welcome. The weathered features and gruff manner suited a range of roles and his dogged but fair-minded police lieutenant in Whirlpool represents one of those times when he made the most of a relatively small part. The script has him cast as a recent widower, which is a nice touch that serves to round out and humanize what might otherwise have felt like a purely generic character. That moment when he wakes at night, stung by his conscience, and then glances briefly at the small framed photo of his late wife on the bedside table before making up his mind to go along with Conte’s hunch is true and simple, and it helps to ground the movie beautifully.

Whirlpool is an interesting movie, fanciful in its telling (is the kind of hypnosis depicted even possible?) yet authentic in its presentation. I guess almost everyone involved has done better work elsewhere, but none of them could be said to have been below par either. The Bfi Blu-ray from some years ago looks excellent to me and the film can be accessed easily on DVD or even online depending on one’s preference.

 

Clash by Night

“People have funny things swimming around inside of them. Don’t you ever wonder what they are?”

It’s odd the way casual, essentially throwaway pieces of dialogue have a habit of penetrating right to the core of the issue. Good dramatic writing will always seek to discover how and why  people react to certain circumstances, certain stimuli.  In melodrama, those reactions are by necessity heightened and may appear nonsensical or even contradictory when viewed with a cool, detached eye. Yet these contradictions and intensities are actually what validates the melodrama, the heightened feelings serving to draw all the illogicality of life itself into sharper relief. Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night (1952) is an example of a successful blend of film noir and melodrama in this adaptation of Clifford Odets’ play.

Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) is back home, back in Monterey after a decade in New York and points east, dressed up in disenchantment and drinking whisky for breakfast. She had been a dreamer once, setting out eagerly in search of her personal pot of gold labeled fulfillment. Time and disappointment have taken their toll though, leaving Mae long on regret and short on options. In fact, the only door remaining open to her, and it’s no more than ajar at best, is the one of the home she grew up in and then ran away from. Her younger brother (Keith Andes) offers a grudging welcome but there’s interest stirring in other quarters. Jerry D’Amato (Paul Douglas) is a fisherman, and her brother’s employer, all muscle and heart, and quickly smitten by Mae. However, there is bound to be a fly in the ointment and this one turns up in the shape of Jerry’s friend Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan). Where Jerry is clumsy in his simplicity, Earl is brash and overbearing. Crucially though, his is a restless spirit, one which is drawn irresistibly to Mae, but she professes to be unimpressed by his shallow braggadocio and instead accepts Jerry’s heartfelt proposal. Nevertheless, just as those massive seas mercilessly pounding the coastline in the opening credits have foreshadowed, great emotional tumult lies ahead.

Film noir trades heavily on disillusionment, detachment and the ever-present threat of despair. Clash by Night taps into all of these, most especially a kind of gut wrenching disappointment and the awful sliding sense that all the positive things life might have to offer will forever remain just beyond reach. It’s like a head-on collision of post-war ennui and middle-aged malaise. Even as the protagonists sweat and struggle in the balmy atmosphere, on a personal level the first chills of autumn are already making themselves felt. I’ve no doubt the disenchantment and uncertainty over what direction to take in life would have struck a chord with a contemporary audience less than a decade after the end of a major global conflict, but the movie has a relevance beyond those immediate concerns. The idea that one can be tempted and seduced by superficiality isn’t confined to any particular era after all. At first, the material might seem atypical for Fritz Lang, but the idea of individuals trapped or restricted by (poor) choices and circumstances is entirely in keeping with his other work. Nobody is really free in this movie – even those who would have us believe they are free spirits are just as hemmed as everyone else – and practically everybody is straining against their respective bonds. Visually, Lang and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca impress on the audience the claustrophobia felt by the characters first in Mae’s family home and then later in Jerry’s house, both of which are slightly elevated and therefore have a sense of remoteness about them. Consistent with the overall tone of the piece, however, there is at least a suggestion of an out, of an escape from the stifling ties that bind in the occasional shots of a moonlit sky or indeed of the vast ocean.

The casting works well, a trio of forty-something actors in the principal roles have that combination of a vaguely shopworn air, a burgeoning realization that time is not on their side, and enough of a spark and appetite for living to make their desperate snatching at the half chances flitting by appear credible. Robert Ryan always seemed to be the epitome of edgy, his characters existing on the periphery of society and civilization, like an interloper in his own home. Earl Pfeiffer is boastful, abusive and bullying; it is impossible to like a man who builds himself up by bawling out put upon waiters or forcing himself on women, but Ryan’s skill lay in his ability to add layers and dimensions to such boors, and his frustration at and awareness of his own flaws fleshes out the character and dismisses the caricature. Stanwyck is every bit as versatile in her own way, moving from pride to defiance, bitterness to fear, and all the time grounded by a frank admission of her character’s own weakness. Her role is both defined by her interactions with Ryan and Douglas and simultaneously creates a meaning and motivation for those two co-stars.

“Don’t say anything. Don’t make no promises. I’d have to trust you, that’s what the terrible thing is. You’ve got to trust somebody, there ain’t no other way.”

When Paul Douglas utters those lines right at the end of the movie there’s no doubting the essential truth of the words, for Jerry D’Amato and for the audience at large. This, coupled with the notion that a form of redemption could be attained by confronting and acknowledging the less savory aspects a person carries within, hints that the fatalism commonly regarded as being irrevocably wed to film noir may not be entirely insurmountable. Paul Douglas’ portrayal of non-judgmental decency, unbowed before loneliness and betrayal, is key to making this work. His scenes with Stanwyck range from the supercharged and fiery to the downright mundane, and the climactic one strikes a satisfyingly hopeful if not quite happy note. For all that, the one which lingers longest in my memory is an earlier interlude aboard his boat. He’s proposing, all awkward and shambling earnestness, and she’s resisting. There is some terrific screen acting on display from those two in that moonlit sequence, a pair of fine performers affording a glimpse of people teetering on the brink of temptation and trepidation. A magical moment of cinema.

While the three heavyweights in the leading roles naturally dominate proceedings, there is depth further down the cast list too. Marilyn Monroe was a rising star, just a year away from breaking through to the very top tier, and was billed fourth, just above the title. Even though she’s not the focus of attention she does get a few moderately memorable scenes, mostly sparring with a surly Keith Andes. This young couple are prey to some of that restiveness that plagues their elders; the shifting dynamics of post-war relationships, that realignment of social mores and roles, suggest that there is likely to be a good deal of friction, or even worse, ahead. J Carrol Naish was one of the most accomplished character actors of the classic Hollywood era, an instantly recognizable presence. As the wastrel Uncle Vince he occupies a small yet pivotal role, a Iago-like hobgoblin sowing unrest out of spite and whispering poison in his nephew’s ear at every opportunity.

Clash by Night was released on DVD long ago by Warner Brothers but I think it may have drifted out of print. It’s a pretty good transfer of the movie, and has a Peter Bogdanovich commentary track as a supplement, but any future upgrade to Blu-ray would be welcome. Fans of Lang’s work, and that of the leading players too, should find this an absorbing movie. It certainly earns a recommendation from this viewer.

Harry Black and the Tiger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Band of Angels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Utah Blaine

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

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

Red Mountain

One of the reasons I started this site many years ago was the opportunity it afforded me to write on and maybe draw some attention to movies (many of which happened to be westerns) that appeared to  have slipped between the cracks and drifted into relative obscurity. That wasn’t the only reason of course, but it was certainly a signficant one. Over time I’ve tried to broaden my base and mix up my content in a way that pleases me and, I hope, engages and attracts a wide range of visitors. Red Mountain (1951) could be seen as a return to my blogging roots in a sense as it is the type of movie I had in mind at the outset, a western with a big name star and directed by a well regarded filmmaker, with some equally impressive names among the crew, but one which rarely gets mentioned.

This is a fanciful tale, one likely to drive the history buffs crazy as it plays fast and loose with historical facts. However, we’re talking about movies here, where artistic license should be granted and where minor matters such as accuracy and fidelity to the known facts are of no more than incidental interest. It opens well, with a faceless killer shooting down an assayer in the town of Broken Bow, the assailant recognizable only by the spurs on his boots. It would seem likely at this stage that we would see a tale focusing on the hunt for this anonymous gunman, and that does appear to be the direction we’re headed in, not least when an innocent man is accused and a vengeful posse summoned. That innocent man is Lane Waldron (Arthur Kennedy), one on whom suspicion is heaped not only because he had been seen in the vicinity but largely because he was once a soldier of the Confederacy and these are the dying days of the Civil War. The townsmen all regard him as a potential traitor and are only too willing to set out with the aim of lynching this interloper. Indeed he comes within a hair’s breadth of this fate but is spared when Brett Sherwood (Alan Ladd) breaks up the party and rescues the happless Waldron. Sherwood is the real killer of the assayer – this is only confirmed right at the end of the movie but it’s acknowledged quite early on in proceedings – and his feelings of guilt and responsibility for Waldron, and later some stronger feelings for the latter’s woman Chris (Lizabeth Scott), drive the plot. All of this is intensified when the infamous Quantrill (John Ireland) comes on the scene. The notorious guerilla leader is in the process of stirring up unrest among the Indian tribes, starting with the Utes, with the aim of opening a new front in the west, one with the potential to derail the Union march towards victory.

One doesn’t think of German director William Dieterle as a natural for  westerns. That said, there’s no earthly reason why we should exclude someone like this – the beauty of the western as a genre is its malleability and the kind of inclusiveness it bred among filmmakers where so many diverse types were able to make strong and successful contributions. That Old West setting was the ideal backdrop for so many tales, a largely untouched landscape invested with enough opportunity and presenting so many physial and ethical challenges that almost any human drama was enhanced when it played out there. Dieterle (who apparently was replaced for a time by an uncredited John Farrow due to ill health) uses the New Mexico locations well, presenting a similar view to that pioneered by John Ford with the vast and imposing natural features framing the conflicts dramatically and simultaneously suggesting their relative lack of consequence in the grand scheme – those towering hills and cliffs and endless horizons prevail and gaze impassively on the petty squabbles acted out in the their shadows and dwarfed by their permanence. Charles Lang’s cinematography makes the most of the natural beauty and is equally effective in the numerous night time shots. The driving and powerful (perhaps occasionally overpowering) score by Franz Waxman adds urgency and also complements some of the grimmer moments in the film.

Red Mountain was the third western for Alan Ladd, following on successfully from Whispering Smith and Branded and paving the way for his signature role in the timeless Shane. While I’m not entirely convinced by some of the writing and characterization in this film, I can’t say that any of that affects the quality of the performances. Ladd’s star was still in the ascendency at this point and he was tremendously good at tapping into the growing uncertainty of his character; there’s a touch of ambiguity there too but it’s the burgeoning sense of unease at the path chosen, the war raging within his own soul, which impresses most.

In contrast, Lizabeth Scott’s career had already peaked and  a few years later any chance of reviving it would be torpedoed by the disgraceful actions of Confidential magazine. She handles her part as the embittered victim of Quantrill’s razing of Lawrence, Kansas with assurance. She is sometimes regarded as a film noir actress first and foremost, and she has some stellar credits in that genre to back that view up, but her work in this film and Silver Lode is just fine as far as I am concerned. Arthur Kennedy fades a little as the story develops, a strong start sees him squaring off against Ladd but his character’s injury sees him sidelined to some extent and the writing I mentioned above does him no favors. John Ireland’s Quantrill offers an interesting study in fanaticism. I particularly appreciated the actors physicality here, using a kind of stiff discomfort to great effect, suggesting a man aware of his own unhinged nature and struggling with some moral straitjacket of his own design. There are also welcome if limited supporting roles for Whit Bissell, Neville Brand and Jeff Corey.

I’m not sure if Red Mountain has received an official release anywhere, which is a pity as the movie has a good deal to recommend it. It represents a strong entry in the filmography of Alan Ladd as he was building his credentials as a western hero and it also adds another layer to the Hollywood work of William Dieterle. Frankly, it’s the kind of film that would look just dandy on Blu-ray if it were given a bit of a clean up. I’d like to think that might happen one day.

Ambush at Tomahawk Gap

A quick perusal of the active ingredients of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap (1953) – a ghost town, a small group of criminals bound together by greed yet riven by hatred and petty squabbles, a solitary woman, and the ever present threat posed by marauding Apache bands in the surrounding hills – might bring to mind Quantez, which I looked at here earlier in the year. While these shared features are plain to see the two movies are quite distinct; even if I feel Quantez is the better film all round, that is not to say Ambush at Tomahawk Gap is a poor effort. On the contrary, this is a tight, suspenseful and entertaining piece of work.

The quest for revenge is a common cinematic motif, one which can be found across a broad range of genres. Westerns have made use of it extensively, something about the rugged backdrop and the sense that justice is not yet fully forged and must be seized hot from the flames of a still uncivilized land seems to make for a good fit. The opening of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap looks as though the story will lead us once more down this well trodden path, and then it doesn’t. Four men have just been released after serving a sentence in Yuma prison: Egan (David Brian), Kid (John Derek), Doc (Ray Teal), and McCord (John Hodiak). They represent a selection of types from the cold-hearted tough, the green hothead, the weary old-timer, through to the brooding outsider. McCord is the latter, an innocent man who was convicted of a crime he hadn’t committed and who has done another man’s time, the other man being Egan’s brother. At this point you would be forgiven for thinking that the plot is going to focus on the vengeance aspect. However, it’s soon established that McCord is on to a loser on that score, the guilty man having been gunned down for cheating at cards soon after his fall guy took up residence behind bars. No, the quest in this case is for the spoils of the robbery these men did hard time for, cash which has never been recovered and is probably secreted somewhere in the abandoned town of Tomahawk Gap, deep in Apache territory. During the course of the trek to this potential treasure trove, and following a skirmish with a band of hostiles, the four travelers pick up a Navajo woman (Maria Elena Marques) who has been held captive. Her wounding of the Kid leads to a subsequent fit of remorse and a bond, and ultimately a romance, will develop between them. On the other hand, there is no love lost between Egan and McCord, each warily circling the other, with one eye on the possibility of obtaining great riches and the other on an opportunity to eliminate the competition. Predictably perhaps, the tensions and rivalries which have been simmering all along come to the boil in the dust swept saloon and echoing streets of a dead town, one which is soon to claim a few more souls for its ramshackle cemetery.

Quantez owes much to the nuanced performances of Fred MacMurray and Dorothy Malone, and of course to the artistry of Carl E Guthrie’s cinematography. Ambush at Tomahawk Gap doesn’t have those to fall back on but Henry Freulich still produces some remarkable images using filters and gets a lot of value out of the ghost town set. Where Quantez trades heavily on its themes of regret and redemption and the slow burn atmosphere this movie folds in more incident and complications to jazz up the pace, yet there is a redemptive aspect at the back of it all too.  Although Fred F Sears was a fairly prolific director I have to confess that I’m not familiar with much of his work – Earth Vs the Flying Saucers is the only other of his pictures I can recall watching off hand. Anyway, his handling of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap is sound and indeed stylish in places, using interesting setups and getting the most out of his small cast.

John Hodiak took the lead as the wronged man and turns in some good work. I’m not sure the writing did him any favors by having his character switch from being motivated by a desire for justice to a more straightforward and altogether less noble demand for compensation. Still, Hodiak carries it off fine. His chief competitor is David Brian, all brashness and bullying, a one-dimensional demonstration of self-absorption, but, again, that’s how the character is written. John Derek’s Kid is rebellious and quick-tempered as well as being suitably callow and credulous. The only other role I have seen Maria Elena Marques play was opposite Clark Gable in Across the Wide Missouri. That movie saw her taking on a part light on dialogue and she is in a similar position here, on both occasions she gave an accomplished performance. However, some of the best work is done by veteran character actor Ray Teal. Often cast as villains, he always added to the entertainment value of any movie he appeared in. The role of Doc is a sympathetic one, a man who has  learned something from life, who has has become philosophical about his own shortcomings and solicitous when it comes to the welfare of the Kid. Teal brings a touching warmth to his part and it may well be the best of his long career.

It should not be too difficult to locate a copy of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap. It was released as a good looking manufactured on demand DVD in the US and versions have shown up in a number of European countries too. It’s an attractive movie, colorful and offering a welcome balance of interior and exterior work. Personally, I am a fan of such tightly made and self-contained films, the restricted focus often brings out the best in many of those involved and the typically pared down stories mean the pace is necessarily brisk. Ambush at Tomahawk Gap may not be all that well known but I think western fans will find it rewarding.

Seven Thunders

Referring to a film as a war movie probably brings to mind images of large set piece combat scenes, of pitched battles raging across the screen with intensity. Seven Thunders (1957) is a war movie and although it does feature an impressively destructive climactic set piece it is really a story (in truth a series of interlocking and interwoven tales) which is played out against, and given added urgency due to, the backdrop of war and occupation. It combines elements of a thriller, drama, and romance and ultimately ties together all the apparently disparate strands. As such, like all genre pictures, it is able to draw in and blend that which one might more readily associate with a different genre. That said, it perhaps tries to cast its net too far and too wide.

And speaking of casting nets, the opening scene by the dockside in the port of Marseille during the Nazi occupation sees a fishing vessel deposit its latest catch. Along with the bounty yielded by the Mediterranean is a pair of escaped Allied prisoners of war on the latest leg of their journey, having escaped from prison camps in Italy. Dave (Stephen Boyd) and Jim (Tony Wright) are taken to a safe house, somewhere to lie low till they can be shunted further along the line. The principal narrative thread is the experience of these two men, with particular focus on Dave and the street smart  young French girl (Anna Gaylor) he finds himself reluctantly falling in love with. Running parallel to this is the matter of Doctor Martout (James Robertson Justice), on the surface a man who is dedicated to aiding the flight of large numbers of refugees and otherwise doomed individuals, but in reality a cold and utterly ruthless serial murderer. Eventually, these two plot strands converge as the relentless Nazi pressure contrives to force the increasingly restless Jim to seek an alternative means of exiting a neighborhood that is soon to be razed to the ground. As these plotlines creep toward their dramatic confluence, other characters and tales spin out of and around them, adding more layers of both tragedy and comedy. There is the impoverished  intermediary (Eugene Deckers) who unwittingly sends victims to the psychopathic Martout and then finds his own life touched by an unspeakable loss. There is the young Wehrmacht soldier whose lack of lack of judgement, self-confidence and self-control brings about that loss. There is then the Englishwoman (Kathleen Harrison) who provides some much needed comic relief, not least when it is discovered that breaking through her wardrobe leads not to a magical land such as C S Lewis might have imagined but instead to a bordello. So, there is no shortage of incident as events build toward an exciting and satisfying conclusion.

All told, I don’t feel Seven Thunders ranks as one of Hugo Fregonese’s more successful pictures, although there is much to enjoy and appreciate in it and the director does some characteristically strong work. The main story is a compelling one and Fregonese gets the most out of the burgeoning romance between Boyd and Gaylor, capturing the immediacy of wartime relationships and gaining credibility both from the performances and the Marseille locations. On the other hand, the Martout sub-plot feels largely unnecessary – it’s neither poorly executed nor uninteresting, but it feels a little undeveloped in itself and also nudges the principal story aside on occasion. If it’s purpose is to add extra tension to the climax, I’m not sure that is necessary. In terms of linking elements together, the Martout strand fleshes out Eugene Deckers role and that in turn affords greater significance to the shocking and tragic business involving the Wehrmacht soldier. Still, I’d have thought those aspects could have been blended in by  some other means. I guess my criticism would be directed at the writing then as opposed to the direction. That writing derives from a novel by Rupert Croft-Cooke, someone whose work I’m more familiar with under his Leo Bruce pseudonym. Leo Bruce wrote some witty detective fiction and those lighter moments I mentioned involving Kathleen Harrison recall this.

Stephen Boyd was on the cusp of real stardom when Seven Thunders was made. He had recently had a memorable part in the fine thriller The Man Who Never Was and was about to get another good role in Henry King’s The Bravados, as well as prominent parts in some glossy melodramas in Hollywood. Overshadowing all this though would be the plum role as Messala in Wyler’s Ben-Hur. He handles the action scenes very competently, including a rooftop fight with a snooping German and the final escape from the city that is collapsing around his ears. The romantic relationship with Anna Gaylor works well too, there’s a sweetness to it and some chemistry between the players. Tony Wright, who had been cast in the early Hammer picture Bad Blonde / The Flanagan Boy opposite Barbara Payton and then portrayed the villain in Tiger in the Smoke, has less to do but carries it off satisfactorily. I tend to think of James Robertson Justice as primarily a comic actor, for the simple reason that those were the parts I first saw him in. However, he did plenty of dramatic work and I think there is something startlingly effective about seeing actors one associates with lighter work portraying out and out evil characters. I know I got a definite chill from seeing him calmly informing one of his victims of the fate which awaits him.

Kathleen Harrison had a long career, and a long life too, playing some wonderful eccentrics and brings both humor and believability to her turn as the woman who has made a life for herself in the French port. As the proprietress of the adjoining bordello, former dancer Katherine Kath nails the world weariness of her character and seasons it with a dash of knowing levity. In other supporting parts, Eugene Deckers has about his creased features that careworn seediness that is a close cousin to despair and, along with Rosalie Crutchley as his downtrodden wife, deals sensitively and effectively with some of the most touching and heartrending moments in the movie.

There is a UK DVD of Seven Thunders available; while the image is generally clean and attractive I’m not sure about the aspect ratio of the presentation, it may be open matte but I think it looks a little cramped at the sides in some shots. In the final analysis, I would rate this as a movie that works well for the most part despite the fact the script attempts to pack in more story than is strictly necessary.

Valerie

Perspectives and perceptions, views and understanding, the way we see events and how we process what’s seen. This is the basis of Gerd Oswald’s Valerie (1957), a western which serves up a set of circumstances and then challenges us to interpret them correctly. The art of the filmmaker is frequently dependent on the successful placement of the camera, the mise-en-scène that draws the eye this way and that and coaxes a reaction or nudges us towards a conclusion. In short, there is a degree of manipulation involved, or to put it less provocatively an encouragement of certain approaches. Ultimately though, if the filmmaker is to retain any integrity, it is incumbent on them to seek the truth. Valerie takes a handful of typical western themes – the nature of heroism and the concepts of opportunity and equality – and proceeds to filter them through the prism of a number of perspectives, bending and splitting them according to the perceptions of the individual narrator before finally arriving at the irrefutable truth.

The film begins with a killing, although the act itself is not seen (not at this point at any rate) and only the bloody consequences are presented to us. John Garth (Sterling Hayden), a wealthy rancher, approaches and enters the home later revealed to be that of his in-laws, a volley of gunshots is heard and then he exits allowing the audience to peek through the doorway at the carnage left behind. Among the torn bodies strewn across the parlor floor is the figure of Valerie (Anita Ekberg), Garth’s estranged wife. The story then shifts to the court where Garth finds himself on trial, his lawyer claiming self-defense while the prosecution alleges murder. The truth lies in the past, a past revealed over the course of the next hour or so via flashbacks resulting from the testimony of the witnesses and the defendant. What follows is a tale of love and jealousy, of mistrust and suspicion, culminating in abuse, violence and death. The telling and retelling of what led up to the tragedy and bloodshed could easily become tedious but the altered perspectives which uncover additional pieces of information as well as allowing different interpretations to form ensure it remains absorbing right up to the end, to that point where the full truth is laid bare and everything is made clear.

Director Gerd Oswald was an immigrant himself and perhaps that adds an extra layer to the aspect of the story which focuses on the outsider attempting to fit into new surroundings. Ekberg’s Valerie is shown as the exotic object of desire as well as the potentially untrustworthy interloper, a figure simultaneously representing attraction and repulsion to Garth’s native son. This highlights the essential weakness and vulnerability of her position, and by extension that of the immigrant in general, where her word is always likely to be regarded as suspect when set against that of the stolid familiarity which her husband embodies. There is too if not exactly an enthusiasm then at least a willingness to believe in some latent wantonness and loose morality in such an outsider, something reinforced by her apparent closeness to the local preacher (Anthony Steel) who also happens to be an immigrant. This subversion of the notion of the old west as a land of boundless freedom and opportunity is neatly done.

If the movie can be seen to be scratching at the mythology of the old west, it’s also following the path of many a 1950s melodrama by casting an unflinching glance at some of society’s most unassailable pillars. The idea of the hero, particularly that of the war hero, is a powerful one. It brings to mind images of selflessness and honor, something fine and upstanding. And so we come back to perception – Garth is celebrated and lauded as a war hero, a man who has served with distinction. Yet it’s slowly revealed that his role was a murkier one, he was by his own admission a de facto torturer whose job was to extract information from prisoners by whatever means were available.  Are we to perceive the violence Garth is capable of as an inherent character flaw or as an indictment of the brutalizing effect of war? Garth’s cruelty is not in question, only the underlying reasons are left to the discretion of the viewer.

Anita Ekberg and the Trevi Fountain sequence in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita are inextricably linked in my mind and I suspect that will be the case with many others, it’s one of those cinematic images that is universally recognizable. From what I’ve seen of her Hollywood career it could best be described as variable but there are still a few gaps I need to fill in and I really need to catch up with John Farrow’s Back from Eternity some time soon. For the most part she was fine as Valerie, although the moments where she was called upon to emphasize the “bad girl” side of the character are less successful than those where she is being victimized. Hayden’s physical presence is used to excellent effect and he generally turns in a strong performance, communicating the threatening and intimidating nature of his character most convincingly. The bluntness, the abruptness and the raw implacability of the man are unmistakable every time he pads menacingly into the frame. Those two dominate the movie throughout, although Anthony Steel (Ekberg’s husband at the time) has a sympathetic albeit frequently ineffectual role as the preacher who is drawn to the troubled Valerie. While he appears slight next to Hayden’s brooding massiveness he also brings a sense of calm and culture, providing something of a counterweight to the simmering passions all around him.

Valerie was released on DVD  in the US by MGM years ago and I think it turns up online regularly too. It looks like an open matte transfer as there is generally some empty space at the top of the screen visible, but that’s not a major issue and the image is satisfyingly sharp and clean. This is not a film that gets mentioned very often, even among film fans, and I feel it is worthy of a bit more attention. It offers a different spin on the traditional western, blending in melodrama, courtroom suspense and some frank yet unobtrusive social commentary. All in all, it offers a satisfying hour and twenty minutes of viewing and there’s the added benefit that it throws in a little food for thought. My advice is to keep an eye out for it.

The Restless and the Damned

Since I’m on vacation just now, I’ve decided to feature another contribution from site regular Gordon Gates . He frequently comes up with titles that are unfamiliar and rare, and this is no exception, a late 1950s drama with an eye-catching and evocative title, starring Richard Basehart and Edmond O’Brien.


The Restless and the Damned (1959) is also known as The Climbers , The Dispossessed and L’Ambiteuse. This Yves Allegret film is set in French Polynesia and stars Edmond O’Brien, Richard Basehart, Andrea Parisy, Nicole Berger and Reg Lye.

Basehart is the black sheep of a wealthy family of mining financiers based in France. He dumps the family life style and heads to Tahiti to make it on his own. His wife, Andrea Parisy, is less than amused with Basehart’s choice. She sticks with him though, hoping he will see the light and return to France and the family wealth.

Basehart, however, just loves being his own man and Parisy soon thinks she has backed the wrong horse. Along comes Edmond O’Brien, a mid-range mine operator who has leases on several of the outer islands. O’Brien hires Basehart as a mechanic for one of his mines. O’Brien of course starts with the clutch and grab with Parisy. She never quite lets O’Brien get to home base which of course just keeps O’Brien charged up.

Parisy is doing this so she can learn what she can about O’Brien’s business affairs. She discovers that O’Brien’s leases on his mines come up for renewal soon. There is a catch in the lease that allows anyone to pick it up within 24 hours of expiry. She talks hubby Basehart into a plan where the two of them can snap up the leases. She bats the lashes at O’Brien and coyly suggests he send Basehart back to France on a holiday.

A loan of 50,000 francs would help send Basehart on his way. Then she hints that with hubby away they can finally get together. O’Brien swallows the bait, the line and the pole! O’Brien forks over the cash and makes plans for a bit of horizontal cha-cha. While O’Brien is busy, Basehart is actually at the government mine offices buying up the leases with O’Brien’s own cash. Parisy of course changes her tune when O’Brien comes to collect.

Too late! Parisy and Basehart now control the mines. Once Parisy is in charge, she runs the business with an iron fist and the profits jump. She then talks Basehart into making peace with his family so she can sell an interest in the mine to them. That will get her what she has always wanted, cash! The two take a trip back to France where the increasingly unhappy Basehart falls for another woman.

Basehart’s family buys into the mine and agrees to fund a large expansion. Parisy grabs a plane back to Tahiti while Basehart stays on in Paris on “mine” business. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, er, Tahiti, O’Brien has been plotting a little bit of payback. He hires a detective firm to follow Basehart around Paris and see if they can find any dirt. The detective firm gets a fine collection of photos of Basehart and his new love in some embarrassing poses.

O’Brien pays Parisy a visit and hands her the photos. “You know you will get nothing if he divorces you” laughs O’Brien. Parisy cables Basehart he is needed at the mine for an emergency. She has worked too long and hard to let it all slip away. One can be sure there will be double-dealing, backstabbing and perhaps murders involved.

No need to mention the noir pedigree’s of Basehart or O’Brien as we all know them. The director, Yves Allegret, was the younger brother of director Marc Allegret. Yves turned out several top-flight films such as Dédée d’Anvers (1948), Une si jolie petite plage (1949), Manèges (1950), La jeune folle (1952) and Les Orgueilleux (1953).

Well worth catching IMO.

 

Gordon Gates