A Bullet Is Waiting

I’ve spoken of the importance of titles before, and I do like to see a punchy and enticing one used. A Bullet Is Waiting (1954) has a lot going for it: it promises suspense, danger and action, it raises questions in one’s mind and attracts the attention. Is it perhaps more than a little misleading though? In a sense it’s not, as it does allude to a very real fear motivating one of the leads. On the other hand, I know that when I first heard of it I had mental images of a western or a noir-shaded thriller. Yet that’s not really what ends up presented on the screen as it’s essentially a rustic melodrama with action/thriller elements backing up a tale of romance and renewal.

Openings that fling the viewer unapologetically into the very heart of the story can be hugely effective, and that’s what occurs with A Bullet Is Waiting. The first image is of boiling, surging waters, waves driven relentlessly by their own turmoil onto hard and unyielding rocks; this, backed by a characteristically muscular and dominant Dimitri Tiomkin score, signals an affair of heightened passions. As the camera moves around the detached wheel of a plane is visible at the edge of the swirling tide, and the tracking shot back inland reveals more wreckage and debris littering the shore, seguing gradually into footprints gouged frantically in the sand. And then, at the crest of a hillock, two figures loom into view struggling against and pummeling each other in desperation. They are Ed Stone (Rory Calhoun) and Frank Munson (Stephen McNally), fugitive and pursuer respectively, quite literally locked in combat since they are shackled together at this point. Stone gains the upper hand, releases himself and sets off alone. It’s a temporary separation though and these two antagonists are soon to be reunited when they stumble  onto private property. Cally Canham (Jean Simmons) is a young woman who has been living an isolated existence with only her reclusive father (Brian Aherne), and her loyal sheepdog, for company. With her father away for a few days, neither Callie nor the two survivors of the plane wreck particularly want to be holed up together in her cabin. However, a prolonged and dramatic storm leads to flooding that cuts off all possible escape routes, and forces these disparate characters to contemplate those timeless adversaries: retribution or redemption. By the time Callie’s father returns a number of truths will have been laid bare and paths chosen.

Now this is by no means a perfect movie, there are weaknesses which I’ll address later, but it has quite a lot going for it. Director John Farrow starts out with that wonderfully cinematic opening sequence I’ve spoken about and manages to steer a fairly even course throughout, avoiding the trap of letting it get too talky, even when the plot drifts toward some philosophical musing. That philosophy – espoused on screen by Aherne and represented by his withdrawal from a modern world he sees as increasingly dominated by confusion and conflict – is actually dealt with more subtly within the framework of the plot.  Personally, I see it as a variation on the classic redemption theme by focusing on the restorative powers of nature. From the primal power of the storm to Franz Planer’s beautiful photography of the pastoral scenes, and on to the soothing effect of the sheepdog and the lamb on the frayed emotions of the characters, the influence of nature and its ability to effect renewal is never far below the surface.

As I noted though, there are weaknesses here, which ought to be mentioned. Firstly, I see the redemptive strand having  a dual focus, on the characters of both Calhoun and McNally, the need for its application to the latter emerging only gradually. By the end this is seen to have been achieved, but in one case it was never in serious doubt anyway whereas in the other something is lost, in my view at least, by the abruptness with which it occurs. Any picture that embraces the concept of redemption and/or renewal is always welcome with me but I have to say I prefer it when the road which leads there feels a little longer, or when the battle is harder fought; in A Bullet Is Waiting it, and indeed the ending itself, arrives with something approaching alacrity. I’ve talked a lot about both Calhoun and McNally on this site in the past so I’ll simply say that both men turn in typically strong work, with the former’s innate likeability and the latter’s knack for tapping into ambiguity to the fore. Brian Aherne’s presence is felt from early on through his influence on his daughter’s thinking and character but he only makes an appearance in the final third. He brings a lovely sense of quiet authority and civility to his role. I liked him in Hitchcock’s I Confess and I must try to feature some more of his work in due course.

However, the real star of A Bullet Is Waiting is Jean Simmons. She had a good deal of range, her deranged beauty in Angel Face remains a remarkable piece of screen acting and contrasts with the delicate innocence she displays here. Her slow awakening and realization of the possibilities existing outside her cloistered existence is well done; the image of her sitting in her modest bedroom, leafing through her book on ballet, the little toy ballerina turning pirouettes within its own  protective yet restrictive space, as she tries to find some common ground with Calhoun’s roughneck is just impossibly charming.

A Bullet Is Waiting was put out as a manufactured on demand DVD in the US by Sony and it’s also available in a number of European editions. Generally, the image is pleasing with Planer’s Technicolor cinematography looking particularly fine. I see that the movie is categorized as a film noir by both IMDb and Wikipedia but, even as one who tends toward an inclusive interpretation, I don’t feel that it should be applied in this case. All told, despite a somewhat rushed ending, I found this to be an enjoyable and rewarding watch. It’s one I’ll be returning to.

The Sun Also Rises

Adaptation, moving from one medium to another, has been a feature of moviemaking since the earliest days, and it’s always been fraught with difficulties. Shifting a theatrical production from the stage to the screen ought to be a reasonably smooth procedure, after all drama is drama, right? Well, not always. What captivates in the theater can all too easily appear static and restrictive on the screen. Yet this is as nothing compared to the potential pitfalls of the literary adaptation, and the more famous or well-regarded the source material, the greater the chance of a negative reaction. This is understandable – authors decry the debasement of their work, the simplifications imposed, and readers express dismay at the excision of cherished passages or, worse yet, casting decisions that make a nonsense of the images they’ve been carrying around in their minds. In short, a screenwriter with a  book to adapt can be forgiven for seeing himself (or herself) on a hiding to nothing. The Sun Also Rises (1957) is based on what might well be Hemingway’s best book and it doesn’t seem to have made too many people happy. The author reportedly derided it and the screenwriter Peter Viertel disliked it. I’m not really sure what the critical consensus is but I know I always enjoyed the movie. If the book was about dreams and desires that were doomed to failure, flirtations and affairs that could only ever be imitations of what the protagonists wanted or needed, a paean to the beauty and tragedy of what can never be, then I reckon the movie, because of rather than in spite of all its flaws, might just be as good an adaptation as anyone could ever hope to make.

The Lost Generation: Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Paris, art, passion and a massive collective hangover after years of pointless slaughter seguing into a decade of apparent aimlessness, where creativity was the only antidote available to a creeping despair. Jake Barnes (Tyrone Power) is a product of all this, surrounded by artists and assorted dilettantes, wunderkinds and wasters. He is in some ways the most directionless of them all, a newspaperman who never returned home after the war and probably never will. The scars of conflict run deep in his case, rendering him impotent and thus consumed by apathy and resignation. He’s an observer of the hedonism and excess, central to it all by acquaintance yet peripheral by necessity. It’s through his eyes that the viewer sees the story unfold: first in the Parisian nightspots where he reacquaints himself with the aristocratic Lady Brett Ashley (Ava Gardner) – in his words, a drunk and a drifter – and just about tolerates the painfully self-aware Robert Cohn (Mel Ferrer); and then later in Pamplona for the fiesta, where Brett’s fiancé the dissipated Mike Campbell (Errol Flynn) meets up with them all. The whole thing amounts to a journey of discovery, where a group of desperate people are gradually force to confront the reality that, through ill-fortune or maybe just the vagaries of fate, none of them can ever hope to capture the love or personal fulfillment they yearn for. Yes, the sun will rise on another day but it’s a chill dawn that signals a world moving further away from their grasp.

The entire second act is played out during the height of the fiesta, with Mexican locations doubling for Pamplona. As the relationships become ever more tangled and the jealousies, flirtations and frustrations grow in intensity to match the progress of the fiesta the one constant in the background holding the group together is the Corrida. Hemingway was fascinated by bullfighting, writing Death in the Afternoon to address his passion for it. My own take on that aspect is that it was fueled, as were so many of his themes and concerns, by the reaction to those wartime years that left the characters of The Sun Also Rises adrift in the world. Much is made of the nobility and honesty of man confronting the overwhelming power of nature head on, of its spectacle and theatricality. It feels like an attempt to juxtapose this grand theater of death with the mindless mass slaughter he had experienced. It is as though his attitude to living and, maybe even more important in his case, dying is shaped by it; there appears to be a need to find some order and formality to it all and thus achieve some spiritual accommodation with himself and perhaps with the world in general.

As I said above, Hemingway expressed dissatisfaction with the adaptation, much to producer Darryl F Zanuck’s disgust, although it’s been suggested he may not even have seen it. Screenwriter Peter Viertel wasn’t happy with how it all turned out either, complaining about the decision to shoot in Mexico rather than Spain. Frankly, I don’t think that makes a lot of difference to the finished movie and it certainly isn’t something this viewer would count as a weakness. He also seems to have had some issues with the casting, but he’s not alone in that and it’s something I’ll come to later. Are there changes to what Hemingway had put down on paper thirty years before? Yes of course, but again my own feeling is that these aren’t of a magnitude to trouble me, and I think it’s necessary to come to terms with the fact that a shift to a different medium is always going to result in changes for a range of practical reasons. What’s important is to respect and appreciate a work on its own terms, not in relation to where it came from, not what we the audience feel it should be, not even what the original creator wanted. Ultimately, one can only evaluate the worth of a piece of art on the basis of what it is.

Henry King’s direction is as assured as ever, transitioning smoothly from  scene to scene and on into each distinct act. The CinemaScope image is well used by him in the scenes illustrating the crowded and bustling nature of the fiesta but what’s critical is his ability to maintain the required sense of intimacy when the main players interact – the bar and bistro scenes, the pivotal bedroom scenes where everyone retreats for rest but where personal revelations are made and souls are frequently bared, and of course the two key moments with Brett and Jake sharing the back seats of cars. Those are the moments where King’s lens brings the focus onto the principals, where they and their jumble of emotions dominate that big screen to the exclusion of all else.

As for the casting, I’ve seen comments before to the effect that the movie was miscast with a central group who were too old for the parts they were playing. This is undeniable and some of them look very shopworn indeed, although again I’ve never considered it a drawback. It’s been many years now since I read Hemingway’s novel but I do recall thinking that here were a collection of people whose youth had been stripped away by the horrors of combat, who had been forcibly aged beyond their years. Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn do look tired but their characters have been badly bruised by life so that’s not an issue as far as I’m concerned.

Power gets across the introversion, bitterness and only half concealed impatience of Jake, his surface affability appearing thin and brittle at times. Ava Gardner is fine too as the unfulfilled beauty, a woman who ought to have it all but who has fallen foul of a piece of rotten ill-fortune by loving the one man who cannot satisfy her needs. The substitutes she flits restlessly around are a disappointing selection: Mel Ferrer’s emotional immaturity and self-absorption is easy to despise and Errol Flynn’s decayed swashbuckler can only ever be a temporary  distraction. And it’s a superb performance by Flynn, a brutally honest portrayal of self-destruction. The sparkle is still there and the charm too but there’s a desperate sense of regret that can’t fail to touch one and I doubt the screen has ever seen a finer display of ragged dignity. Eddie Albert provides a happy-go-lucky prop for Flynn, and Juliette Greco, who just recently left us, is impressively insouciant in a small part. It seems that few people were keen on Robert Evans as the bullfighter who captivates Gardner, prompting Zanuck’s famous “the kid stays in the picture” remark. To be honest, I don’t think he adds a lot – he does have a certain gauche quality that is partially endearing but I’m not sure there’s the kind of magnetism about him that would give rise to an obsession in a character like Brett.

The Sun Also Rises has always looked strong on DVD; I had the old UK disc for many years and thought it looked fine but I was tempted to pick up the the Blu-ray over the summer when I noticed it going cheap.  Unsurprisingly, it looks even better in high definition and there are some nice supplements to add value, including a commentary track, an audio interview with Henry King,  a featurette on the making of the movie with contributions from Peter Viertel among others, and one on Hemingway adaptions in general.  All in all then, I feel that despite the reservations some have expressed regarding casting choices, locations, and changes from the original text, that the movie holds up well. If there are imperfections, and I’m not sure some of those are as damaging as they’re alleged to be, then that’s perhaps appropriate for a film about characters who are themselves less than perfect.

Distant Drums

How does one get the measure of a filmmaker? I guess received wisdom has it that a viewing of their best works is the ideal way to go about it; this assertion appears to be self-evident and it’s not one I’m not going to dispute. However, I can’t help wondering if there’s not something be gained from an examination of what might be thought of as their mediocre efforts as well. It just occurred to me as I was watching Distant Drums (1951) that Raoul Walsh’s strengths as a director were still on display despite the fact the movie in question was very much a routine affair. In fact, a great deal of what makes this film worthwhile derives from the skill of the man ultimately calling the shots.

Distant Drums is one of only a handful of movies that use the conflict with the Seminole in Florida as a backdrop. I use the word backdrop because that is very much the case here, with no examination whatsoever of that conflict taking place. In narrative terms it merely serves as a frame on which to hang a straightforward story of pursuit and danger. In brief, the Seminole are being armed by gunrunners operating out of an old Spanish fort and this supply needs to be cut off if the army is to be successful in subduing them. To this end, a young naval officer (Richard Webb) is sent to the island retreat of the reclusive Captain Wyatt (Gary Cooper) to accompany him and his small force and assist them during the essential lake crossing en route to their target. While the initial assault on the fort is a success the return to the prearranged rendezvous proves problematic. Wyatt and his party,  now supplemented by a rescued hostage (Mari Aldon) and her maid, are forced to abandon their original plan and instead plunge into the steamy, crocodile infested Everglades.

If one takes the movie as an uncomplicated adventure,  Distant Drums works just fine. There is no shortage of incident, the action scenes are frequent and absorbing, and there is enough suspense generated at key moments to quicken the pulse. The assault on the fort is a grand bit of work, shot and cut together with a fine eye for the geography of the building and never drifting into the type of muddle a complex set piece such as this always flirts dangerously with. And this leads me to Raoul Walsh. He was one of the great directors, in my opinion, a man of boundless skill and possessed of the kind of practical artistry that allowed him to tackle even the most unpromising and prosaic projects with the same dedicated flair as one would expect were he making a prestige picture. It’s sometimes said that Walsh was the consummate action director, but it’s maybe more accurate to think of him as a master of drive and motion. His movies always appear to move effortlessly forward, smoothly shifting gears and bringing the audience along for the ride even when the journey itself hasn’t all that much to offer. This is what I was alluding to at the beginning, how the capabilities of a director like Walsh remain apparent despite the limitations of the material he was handling.

I can’t fault Walsh’s direction, and neither the gorgeous location cinematography of Sidney Hickox nor the score by Max Steiner disappoint. So where is the film lacking? Surprisingly, I think the responsibility has to be laid at the door of of the writers. I say it’s surprising because the name of Niven Busch on the credits generally has me expecting a bit more depth; perhaps some  probing into character, some heightened emotion, or even a hint of twisted psychology. Yet none of that is present, and in the end we know little more about any of the characters than we did at the outset. I certainly haven’t seen all of the movies Busch provided a screenplay for but of those I have (mainly his later pictures) I think it’s fair to say that Distant Drums is easily the least interesting. For what it’s worth, I have another of this writer’s scripted movies in mind for a future write up – and no, it’s not Duel in the Sun before anyone asks.

The thing about great movie stars is how even unremarkable films gain by their presence. There are those who dislike or are unconvinced by Gary Cooper’s style, and that’s of course fine, but I’d have thought his place among cinema’s pantheon is undisputed. Sure he’s laconic and his work is understated but he commands the screen whenever he’s present and dares anyone to look away. Still, I feel the script let him down somewhat. Next to nothing is made of the potential suggested by his character’s late wife or their mixed race son. The danger the latter is exposed to at the end and the effect on Cooper is worth noting but it never feels like it’s center stage. Mari Aldon makes for an attractive co-star and the romance which develops is gentle and light. This may well have been her most substantial role, certainly of what I’ve seen. However, I’ll remember her more for her small part as the world weary companion of Warren Steven’s abusive and uptight producer in the superior The Barefoot Contessa. Richard Webb has probably the most thankless role of all, the point of view figure who introduces the whole thing and then ends up relegated to merely tagging along. Had there been some more serious rivalry with Cooper’s character injected then it might have added another layer of interest. The support is provided by Arthur Hunnicutt playing one of his patented frontier types and the seemingly ubiquitous Ray Teal as a discontented soldier.

Distant Drums is one of those productions that depends heavily on its visuals as a result of the lush cinematography in Florida. This is one of the movie’s principal attractions and needs to be shown off to its best advantage. The Blu-ray and DVD released by Olive Films some years ago does highlight this aspect most satisfactorily, even if it offers no supplementary material. I may sound as though I dislike the movie, but that’s not true. It remains serviceable, attractive and entertaining. That said, it feels like an opportunity was missed, that the talent involved wasn’t exploited as it might have been. Nevertheless, it helps cement, in my mind anyway, an appreciation of the apparently effortless skills of Raoul Walsh.

Ruby Gentry

Incompatibility, or the absence of harmony, is what Ruby Gentry (1952) is all about. It’s a tale of love and ambition, and the friction generated by attempting to marry those two emotional opponents. Underpinning all that is the downbeat assertion that it is futile for one to try to escape the bonds of the past, that the future has already been mapped by circumstance or one’s  forebears, or perhaps some unseen guiding hand. This fatalistic view, one approaching the idea of predestination, tilts the movie in the direction of film noir; I think it is deserving of the noir label although I do acknowledge that there are those who will claim it is debatable whether it really belongs in that nebulous category.

Dr Saul Manfred (Barney Phillips) is the man from whose  point of view the story is seen. He’s our narrator, a kind of everyman guide taking us through the varied and tangled relationships at the heart of the affair rather than one of those pompously stentorian “voices of authority” that sometimes lecture the audience at the beginning of a film noir. His is a much more thoughtful and sensitive description of events and people, a reflection of the character himself and also of the personal stake he had in its development, at least at the start. He tells of Ruby (Jennifer Jones), and it’s one of those classic parables detailing the rise and fall not only of the title  character but of all those who were part of her life, and indeed one might even say of the rise and fall of the stuffy and socially suffocating community they all inhabit. Ruby is introduced as a swampland tomboy, an impoverished temptress in tight sweaters and torn jeans, as skillful with a rifle as she is careless with the hearts she captures. Simultaneously skittish and coquettish, she has spent time fostered in the well-to-do household of local big shot Jim Gentry (Karl Malden) and it’s whispered among the more mean-spirited in town that she has acquired ideas above her station. This is clear from her romance with Boake Tackman (Charlton Heston), a returning jock from a patrician background and a head full of big plans. The rigid social order is disapproving and Tackman hasn’t the moral courage to rise above this, so Ruby is drawn back into the world of the recently widowed Jim Gentry. Thus a complex web of ambition and desire is spun around a set of people who all think they know what they want but have no clear idea of how to get it, or to hold onto what they do manage to grab.

King Vidor’s  direction (working from a script by Silvia Richards) is beautifully controlled, pacy and rarely extravagant yet lush in its depiction of the steamy swamp where the climactic scene is played out and also in the richly detailed interiors, especially the house occupied by Ruby and her family. He uses space well to convey mood, the joyous and liberating race along the beach and through the surf in Tackman’s car perfectly captures the early exuberance of Ruby and her love, and then the cramped room which she shares with Jim and the doctor for the failed party after her marriage encapsulates the narrow and restrictive world she finds herself in. In the creation and presentation of these varied moods Russell Harlan’s cinematography is all one could ask for and no less than one would expect from such an artist in the manipulation of light. Ultimately, the movie works as a condemnation of unfettered ambition, where each of the main characters systematically destroys everything they care for in the pursuit of the unattainable. It is this, alongside the sour judgemental snobbery of a blinkered society, which stymies the only pure feelings on show – love is either thwarted or left unfulfilled and atrophied.

Jennifer Jones as the title character does succeed in drawing in the viewer, her allure is clear from her first appearance and the reunion with Heston on the porch in the dark and by torchlight gives a foretaste of the tumultuous nature of their relationship. Her efforts to fuse her love and her hunger to climb the social ladder is apparent from early on and the slow realization that she can only achieve the latter at the expense of the former is painful to see but convincingly portrayed by Jones. In the final analysis, hers is not an attractive character, the vindictiveness (though understandable) adds coldness and her attempts time and again to net Heston detract from her somewhat.

That latter aspect is amplified when it comes to the marriage to Malden’s besotted millionaire. His motives are the most straightforward and honest of the lead trio and he consequently earns a good deal of sympathy. There is a terrifically affecting moment when he catches his wife out in a foolish betrayal and you can see not only his world crumbling before his eyes but his assessment of himself as a man undergoing a reevaluation as he gazes in frank despondence into the mirror behind the bar of the country club. Heston simply oozes machismo, that powerful screen presence clear from even this relatively early stage in his career. For all the swaggering bravado though his Boake Tackman is a moral coward, a “back-door man” hiding behind his family’s position and reputation. Also deserving of mention is some fine work from Tom Tully, Barney Phillips and, in a disturbingly fanatical turn as the scripture-quoting brother, James Anderson.

Ruby Gentry has had a Blu-ray release in the US from Kino and there are a range of DVDs out there as well. I still have my old UK disc put out by Fremantle many years ago and it presents the movie most satisfactorily, although there are no supplements whatsoever offered. The movie has a strong emotional hook and Vidor’s assured direction, as well as Harlan’s cinematography and Heinz Roemheld’s score, combines effectively with some excellent performances. This may not be a picture you come away from with a particularly positive glow but it does have some depth and the final image, and message, may not be quite as downbeat as it first appears.

Plunder Road

“Remember what Johnny Dillinger said about guys like you and him. Said you were rushin’ toward death. Yes, just rushin’ toward death.” – High Sierra (1941)

The above quote seems as good a summation as any of the thinking behind Plunder Road (1957), a late entry in the classic film noir cycle and a lean, streamlined one at that. Any fan of pared down, low budget filmmaking ought to find much to appreciate here in the simplicity of the narrative and the clean, uncluttered technique. The movie provides an object lesson in how to be economical without becoming cheap and how to take a sparse, minimalist approach to storytelling without sacrificing the engagement and involvement of the viewer.

If you’ll excuse the pun, this is a driving movie in every way. It opens in that breathless style that leaves one in no doubt regarding its urgency. The credits are punched up on screen as the white lines of an anonymous highway hurtle by below. The filmmakers are clearly in a hurry to get to the point, and as the camera moves into the interior of the vehicles it’s abundantly clear that the characters presented to us are just as conscious of the need for haste. There are five men in two trucks and they are racing through the rain and the darkness, racing to catch a train. Eddie (Gene Raymond) is the brains of the outfit, the mastermind behind a plan to lift millions in bullion from a late night train. They’re running late and he’s worried, though the guys in the back of the truck, a hooligan (Wayne Morris) and a explosives man (Elisha Cook Jr), are probably even more tense, sitting either side of a precarious looking contraption supporting a vial of nitroglycerine or some other highly volatile substance. Despite the inclement weather and the rush, the heist is a success, and then a new race is on. Perhaps it’s actually two races, that of the gang to make good their escape with the loot and that of the largely faceless authorities to lay them by the heels before they have the chance of slipping out of the country.

Director Hubert Cornfield has an extremely brief list of credits to his name but Plunder Road is the only one of his movies I’ve seen so far. As such, I’m not in a position to comment on whether or not it’s representative of his work. What I can say, however, is that this is one stylish dynamo of a picture. That  pacy beginning segues into a heist sequence that is fabulously smooth in its execution and  memorable in its visuals; the rain, the masks and the clockwork precision of it all shot in a spare yet evocative manner by Ernest Haller. From this point on the tension never lets up, the gang now attempting to put into practice the crucial getaway their laconic leader has mapped out. Any connoisseur of the heist movie will know that a big part of their success derives from observing how even the most tightly woven and seemingly foolproof of schemes can slowly unravel, with the pressure generally coming from within rather than without. Plunder Road follows such a formula, but avoids descending into cliché as it does so. This is partly due to the “shape” of the narrative moving in what might appear to be a reversal of the usual noir route; it goes from darkness, confusion and turbulence towards the light, the ending deceptively bright and sunny, everyday and bland. Bleak and bland. That’s part of it, the other part is the characterization.

What we get in Plunder Road are thumbnails, brief sketches that highlight a few prominent or significant features. A more lavish budget might have led to flashbacks, a wider cast and maybe parallel storylines to add apparent depth, but I doubt the end result would be any more effective. Narrative padding tends to be irritating, inflating the running time unnecessarily and damaging the rhythm. Here we learn only the essentials about the characters and this is typically communicated via snatches of throwaway conversation. The point here is that this minimalist writing style works, and it works by telling us enough about the characters to catch a glimpse of who they are,  and who they were, almost without us being aware of it. And it’s just enough to humanize them, to make the viewer interested in them, to care.

Gene Raymond had top billing as the planner, and what is learned about him? Surprisingly little beyond the fact he’s supposed to be a first timer, a man without a criminal past and therefore an object of curiosity. All that’s really revealed is his skill in logistics and, crucially, his relationship with Jeanne Cooper. Those two people are essentially defined inside the movie by this relationship, both of them acting as they do as a result of their devotion to the other. Steven Ritch wrote the movie and also played the part of the expert driver, a twitchy, hot-tempered type who blew a promising career and is now desperate for a big score. Stafford Repp was a few years off becoming Chief O’Hara in Batman but makes an impression as the dead-eyed but careless gum chewer who proves to be the first weak link in the chain. Elisha Cook Jr displays, perhaps unsurprisingly, more pathos than anyone else. His widower who hopes to secure a privileged, comfortable future for his son and himself in Rio is the very epitome of naivety. Finally, there is Wayne Morris as a former stuntman; tough and detached, here’s a man who depends on his muscles more than his brain. The pivotal scene at the gas station, where he first elicits sympathy from the viewer through his casual chat with the elderly attendant before flipping the whole thing in the blink of an eye after he makes the  kind of error that cannot be ignored, shows him at his best. That scene, on a number of levels, is the most tragic and affecting in the entire movie.

Plunder Road was released on both Blu-ray and DVD in the US some years ago by Olive Films. The black and white Scope image looks excellent and there are no noticeable flaws. This is a fine movie which benefits from tight scripting and sharp cinematography and direction. The precision of the heist is classic thriller material and  having each character’s downfall stem from their own unique traits  is pure film noir – the notion that everyone is in effect his own nemesis is a dark thought indeed. This is a movie which retains freshness even after multiple viewings and is therefore an easy recommendation, something especially true for those who have yet to see it.

Damn Citizen

Today we have a genuine rarity (at least it fits my definition of the term) placed under the spotlight in another guest post courtesy of regular visitor Gordon Gates.

This is another of those unseen Universal International productions that really needs a general release. Damn Citizen (1958) is a by the numbers documentary style noir about police corruption. The story is based on real events and people. It stars Keith Andes as Col Francis Grevemberg. Grevemberg, an ex-army officer, is offered the command of the Louisiana State Police. Louisiana was at the time considered to be the most corrupt State in the Union.

Everyone seems in on the scam with officers looking the other way for their cut of the action. Every time Andes raids a gambling club or bordello, they find the place has been warned. So Andes decides to fire most of the force and start from scratch.

 He starts a rigorous screening and training course hoping to weed out the crooks. When this fails, Andes decides to play the mob’s game and sends officer Jeffery Stone undercover. Stone pretends to be a crooked cop and gets himself thrown off the force. Some of the other fired cops have been working as gunmen etc. for the gambling mob and Stone is quickly offered a job.
***SPOILER ALERT – HIGHLIGHT THE  FOLLOWING***

 Andes right hand man, Gene Evans, has also been working behind the scenes selling info to the crooks for the then hefty sum of $1,000 a week. Edward Platt plays the head of the mob. He offers Andes a bribe which is turned down. He then tries a bit of blackmail by having a woman peel off her duds in front of Andes while a cameraman snaps away.No dice, Andes steps up the pressure and Platt responds in kind. Someone pays a visit to Andes’ home and deposits the decapitated body of the family dog in his children’s bed. Then undercover cop Stone is murdered and his body left in Andes’ car. Now Evans steps forward and tells Andes about all the info he has collected by pretending to be an informant for the mob. 

Andes then forces an old friend, Lynn Bari, who is a member of the mob, to turn State’s evidence. Doors are soon kicked in and guns produced and used.

Platt and his boys are hauled off for a long holiday at the State’s expense.

*******************************END OF SPOILERS**********************

A real stand up policer with good work from the cast and crew. There is a small morals lecture at the start, but then the film goes right to speed and never lets up. Besides Andes, Bari, Evans and Platt, the cast includes Maggie Hayes, Ann Robinson and Clegg Hoyt.

It is always nice to see Gene Evans in anything. He has the gruff cop, military type or western black hat down to a fine art. Fixed Bayonets!Armored Car RobberyThe Steel Helmet, Wyoming Mail, The Long Wait, The Bravados, Park Row and Hell and High Water are just a few of his films.
Same thing with Lynn Bari. The slinky looker was called the “Woo Woo Girl” and was a popular pin-up girl during WW2. Pretty well only worked in B films but was a
pretty good actress.
The jazzy musical score is supplied by Henry Mancini of Peter Gunn and The Pink Panther fame.

The story is written by Stirling Silliphant whose work includes Nightfall, The Line-Up, and the series M-Squad, Naked City, Route 66 and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

The d of p was Ellis W Carter who worked on The Human Jungle and the George Blair directed, Lonely Heart Bandits. ( A plug for Lonely Heart Bandits which is one of my fav low rent noir) Carter also lensed one of the better 50’s Sci-Fi classics, The Incredible Shrinking Man.

Director was low budget and television veteran Robert Gordon.

Availability is currently problematic and even an online viewing seems out of the question. There is however a trailer which gives a flavor of the movie.

EDIT: This link may bring up the movie itself – https://ok.ru/video/1223899810389

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Gordon Gates

Manuela

Movies which play out for the most part in confined spaces typically generate tension, the limited options available to the characters mirrored by their spatial restrictions. Another layer is added when the dramatic space involved is to be found on a vehicle, a train or a ship for instance. When this occurs the concept of a journey is naturally woven into the fabric of the drama. A journey is generally of interest in itself, even when approached on the simplest and most literal of terms, and that interest rises if it can be viewed as a metaphor for the characters’ progress through life. It is this spiritual or emotional journey which resides at the heart of Manuela (1957), a modest, self-contained and deeply satisfying work directed by Guy Hamilton in the years before Hollywood and the James Bond movies beckoned.

There’s nothing like a death to focus the mind on life, and that’s essentially what happens as this movies opens. The story is one of a ship and more particularly the master of that vessel. That opening has him setting off to lay his chief engineer to rest in the South American port where he has docked. The ship is a beaten up tramp freighter and its equally weathered and weary captain is James Prothero (Trevor Howard). He’s seen to be drifting into a dissatisfied and increasingly drunken middle age, commenting at one point on how the passage of the years has not only crept up on him but also caught him unawares, leaving him with that unwelcome sense that there is more time behind him than there is lying ahead. Yet despite his conviction that he’s teetering on the brink of a bitter autumn, events are about to take a wholly unexpected turn, one which will see him enjoying something of a late spring instead. Taking advantage  of the amorous and expansive nature of Maltese crew member Mario (Pedro Armendariz), a beautiful half English girl Manuela (Elsa Martinelli) inveigles her way on board as a stowaway. Her presence seems set to cause friction and does so initially but it’s her longer term effect on the jaded captain that drives the drama. As he experiences a renewed appetite for life, he becomes distracted from his duties, switching his attention to the course he’d like to see his life following as opposed to the potentially hazardous one his vessel is in the process of navigating.

Guy Hamilton appears to have been a very polished man and that cool, worldly sophistication shows through in his movies. After serving an apprenticeship as assistant director under the likes of John Huston and Carol Reed, Hamilton went on to take charge of a number of well made British dramas including an adaptation of Priestley’s An Inspector Calls as well as The Intruder, a little known gem with Jack Hawkins. In Manuela everything revolves around priorities, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the recognition of what they are; that and the fact it’s never too late to reassess and realign those priorities. While there is some very moody imagery via Otto Heller’s cinematography and a few quite dark moments, the overall tone of the movie is uplifting and optimistic. The story was filmed with two different endings – it’s an adaptation of a novel by William Woods, although not having read that I can’t say which one is more faithful to the source – and without going into details and spoilers I’ll just state that I vastly prefer the one used as the default for this release.

“… suddenly tonight, I saw myself growing old. And I didn’t like it. When you’re young you see the good days all ahead of you. Then suddenly you get older and catch sight of them behind you and wonder how in the devil’s name they got there.”

Trevor Howard had the lived in appearance that oozes character, his was a face and manner made for mature drama. The arc traced throughout this picture by Prothero is achieved skillfully and artfully. The bitterness and resignation of the first act is a brittle veneer that cracks completely with the arrival of the girl. What is revealed is a soul not yet aged irreversibly but hungry to taste hope once again. Of course for this kind of reawakening to make any sense, or have any credibility, it’s vital to have the right person providing the impetus. A young Elsa Martinelli easily fits that bill, exuding attraction and a frank charm. While those two are at the heart of the drama it’s also important to acknowledge the contribution of Pedro Armendariz. His role is a complex one, a figure of ebullience and menace too, a dangerous romantic with a dark side and generous heart, a braggart who is simultaneously a confessor. In support we get a number of familiar faces and talented figures from British cinema. Donald Pleasence has a sizeable role as a repressed and ultimately mean-spirited officer, one of those professional and spiritual zealots he excelled at playing. Other notables are Jack MacGowran, Warren Mitchell and Roger Delgado.

Blind buying movies can be a bit of a gamble and there’s no doubt that it doesn’t always pay off. However, an interesting cast and/or crew as well as an eye-catching piece of poster art will often get this viewer’s attention. Manuela was one of those blind buys when it showed up at a knockdown price in one of Network’s regular sales a few years ago. From a purely technical standpoint, it’s a terrific looking DVD with a sharp, smooth 1.66:1 image. I liked the fact the disc offered the alternative ending as an bonus feature. Apparently, different endings were used for the UK and overseas releases (according to IMDb at any rate) and I’m unsure which one is the default on the DVD – the UK one, presumably. This was a movie I viewed with absolutely no prior knowledge and consequently no particular expectations. Admittedly, there are a few inconsistencies in the script and some loose ends which are left untied. Nevertheless, I found it all a highly enjoyable experience and it’s a title I’m happy to recommend.

Edit: The movie was released in the US under the alternative title Stowaway Girl.

Wyoming Mail

I reckon titles matter. I’ve commented before on how certain titles have grabbed my attention and were directly responsible for my watching those movies. I know, it’s somewhat similar to the old “don’t judge a book by its cover” adage and, momentarily at least, it does make me wonder whether I’m being shallow. If there are titles which can draw me in, the opposite is true to some extent as well and there are those which have actively discouraged me; I’m thinking here of long, cumbersome examples or the generally unappealing variety. This brings me to Wyoming Mail (1950), which is not so much an unattractive title as a terminally prosaic one. Perhaps I’m wrong about this, perhaps it’s just some personal prejudice of my own, but I cannot imagine that one getting too many people excited and keen to see the film. Frankly, I have to wonder what the marketing department at Universal-International were thinking of when this picture was being produced. That aside, let’s see how the movie itself plays out.

Yes, it’s a story about the mail. To be more specific, this is one of these westerns which adds undercover/spy trappings to a tale of the gradual expansion of civilization in the Old West. The train was pivotal in conquering the frontier, that iron road was the connection from ocean to ocean and allowed for the transport of people and goods almost everywhere at speed. And part of its function was to carry the mail. That’s where the story kicks in, pointing out how the railroad was following on from the early Pony Express and stage lines in this regard, and how it was simultaneously becoming the target of criminal gangs. So what we’re looking at is an exercise in infiltration, where government operative and former soldier turned prize-fighter Steve Davis (Stephen McNally) is tasked with heading west with the aim of tracking down the head of a gang of highly successful raiders. This quest will require his incarceration in the territorial prison, a stint in “the hole” and a subsequent breakout. All the time he’s burrowing ever deeper into the criminal network and picking up new threads to investigate, he’s continually switching identities and the prospect of betrayal is never far off.

While that title is as forgettable as they come and the script, by Harry Essex and Leonard Lee, has no pretensions about offering anything of depth, the movie remains a hugely entertaining. This, I think, is largely down to the pacing and the amount of incident packed into a brisk 80 minute running time. From the opening minutes the story never lets up, barely pausing for breath as robberies, shootings, fights, double-dealing and a touch of romance sprint across the screen in a Technicolor delight shot through the lens of Russell Metty’s camera.

Director Reginald Le Borg is not someone I automatically think  of when westerns are being discussed. Although I do have a copy of War Drums somewhere, he’s most familiar to me for taking charge of a number of Lon Chaney Jr horrors, particularly a clutch of Inner Sanctum titles. I think the last movie of his that I watched was around the turn of the year when I enjoyed Vincent Price in an attractive looking piece of nonsense called Diary of a Madman. This is a handsome production as well and while I certainly wouldn’t like to refer to it as nonsense it is breezy and quite insubstantial. I’m not sure I can say much about Le Borg as a director beyond the fact he brought a welcome sense of urgency to the picture.

Having Russell Metty behind the camera is a big plus for any movie, but the other big selling point for Wyoming Mail is the cast. I like Stephen McNally a lot, he was one of those guys who was equally effective as hero or villain, in the lead or in support. He’s a good choice in this as the Easterner sent to smash the train robbers’ gang and his snappy, quick-talking assurance works a treat. The romance with Alexis Smith is mostly effective and enjoyable to watch, although I imagine it can’t have been much of a chore being asked to play a love scene opposite Ms Smith. One look at the cast ought to tell you you’re going to be in for a pretty entertaining experience. Just take a moment to read: Howard Da Silva, Ed Begley, Richard Jaeckel, James Arness, Richard Egan, Gene Evans, Frank Fenton, Whit Bissell. Granted some of the parts are small and the appearances fleeting but simply seeing these people on the screen is a pleasure in itself. Incidentally, McNally, Smith and Egan would appear together a few years later in Dick Powell’s enjoyable Split Second.

To the best of my knowledge, Wyoming Mail has only had one official DVD release anywhere. That was in France via Sidonis, and it’s one I haven’t bothered to pick up due to the tendency for that company to force subtitles. There aren’t too many Universal-International westerns that remain hard to access these days – unlike their crime and noir pictures – excepting those which seem to have problems with elements or prints in the incorrect aspect ratio. Anything I’ve seen of Wyoming Mail, which pops up online from time to time, suggests that the film is in good shape overall so it’s odd that it’s not been made more widely available. Mind you, I have a hunch the title can’t be helping in that respect…

Black Patch

Admittedly, I’m not entirely sure how appropriate it is to talk of boundaries in relation to movies, especially if we’re  going to acknowledge that they are a form of artistic expression. Nevertheless, when it comes to assessing a movie, to applying some critical thought to what’s presented there on the screen,  it’s difficult to get away from the concept of boundaries. Watching Black Patch (1957) had me wondering about where, or indeed how, one goes about fixing the boundary between a work which is merely interesting and one which can be seen as successful. Black Patch fell into that  grey area for me, not failing but not quite working as well as one might hope either.

Low budget movies have to employ a little more creativity, or trickery if you want to take the cynical view, to work around the limited resources. This can operate in a movie’s favor if it’s handled effectively. Here the opening uses a simple technique to hook the viewer, having a dramatic event occur off screen. This narrative, and financial, economy arouses one’s curiosity over what just happened, instigating an itch that needs to be scratched. The event is later revealed to be a robbery, or its aftermath anyway, carried out by Hank Danner (Leo Gordon). Danner’s journey will take him to a small western settlement, typical in its closed character. There we see one of those cinematic coincidences appear – the town marshal Clay Morgan (George Montgomery) is an old acquaintance of Danner’s, with the additional complication that he was also once in love with the current Mrs Danner (Diane Brewster). At this point I thought I knew exactly where the story was heading, but to give the writer (that man Leo Gordon again) his due it veers off in a very different direction. To some extent the two old friends are pitted against one another but a further violent incident and a rather shocking death in the middle of the movie alters everything. Perhaps I’m being annoyingly vague or oblique here but I’d prefer people who haven’t seen the movie to come to this fresh. What I will say, however, is that this represents the point where I feel the movie becomes problematic.

Now, when I say problematic I’m thinking of the script first and foremost. Gordon had set up a fascinating situation, a classic emotional triangle with a number of original touches to add freshness. However, for me anyway, the subsequent actions of the marshal and the young man (Tom Pittman) who plays an increasingly prominent role in the tale lack a certain logic. The marshal’s behavior regarding the stolen money feels entirely out of character and does not seem credible, neither in relation to what came before nor what follows. I can see how Gordon was casting around for a reason to bolster the growing hostility in town but it didn’t convince me at all. Then there’s the matter of the sudden transformation of Pittman’s callow youngster into  a dangerous gunslinger. Again, this is too abrupt and gave me the impression of a contrivance as opposed to a natural progression within the narrative framework. Others may well disagree but these shifts weakened the whole picture in my view.

So there’s there’s the boundary I spoke of at the beginning; a gear change in the writing that lacked smoothness and instead had that grinding and jarring effect that’s hard to ignore. That said, the movie is never less than interesting and I felt great satisfaction not only at the uplifting way the plot resolves itself but also at the filmmaker’s bold decision to show restraint and end it all at the natural climax rather than allow it to run on for no better reason than showing some frankly redundant gun play. I was impressed by how much value Allen H Miner was able to draw from limited resources when I viewed The Ride Back last year and his work here is every bit as stylish. It’s shot almost exclusively on the backlot and sets, and Edward Colman’s cinematography takes full advantage of that controlled environment to paint the kind of images that we tend to associate with film noir. What’s more, the movie has the distinction of featuring the debut score by Jerry Goldsmith.

This was the second George Montgomery western I’d watched in close proximity and I had a better time overall with this one – the other, for the curious out there, was Robbers’ Roost but that’s a story for a different day. What I’ve seen of Montgomery’s work so far tends to bring out his easy charm, his solidity in a leading role. But Black Patch is different; he’s not playing a man at ease in any sense of the word, the self-conscious way he massages his eye-patch when alone or stressed is indicative of a man  made suddenly aware of his own frailty, and his shifty behavior when confronted with evidence of his friend’s wrongdoing is very nicely realized too. For all that, it’s clear throughout that his inner core is strong, his essential integrity uncompromised – the image of him sitting alone in the living room of his home as the rocks and taunts come through the window is a powerful one. Mind you, that brings me back to that inconsistency in the writing I mentioned above and which does not jibe with what we see of the man elsewhere.

Of the others, Leo Gordon gives a typically muscular performance. Tom Pittman comes into the movie much more in the second half and is fine at conveying the confusion and turmoil of a youth who suddenly finds himself fulfilling a role he had dreamed of yet is not at all prepared for. Diane Brewster is good enough as the woman at the center of the conflict but the part actually offers less than one might imagine. The striking Lynn Cartwright (Mrs Leo Gordon in real life) has a juicy little role as the mistress of the principal villain and suffers some appalling treatment at his hands. That villain is portrayed with bombastic, bullying relish by a harpsichord-playing Sebastian Cabot. Some other familiar faces making appearances are House Peters Jr, Strother Martin and Ned Glass.

Black Patch has been released on DVD in the US via the Warner Archive and there’s also a German version available. I think it was out in the UK years ago, but that may have been presented in the incorrect aspect ratio. So, as I stated at the top of this piece, I’m not sure this movie works as well as it might. I’m not convinced by aspects of the script yet the performances, cinematography, and a fine conclusion all give it a boost. It might not be a great movie but it’s never less than interesting.

Deported

Time for another guest post, once again courtesy of Gordon Gates. It’s a classic era film noir, so it slots right into his comfort zone. Seeing as it’s a Universal-International property, albeit yet another of the elusive ones, it probably belongs in the comfort zone of a few regular visitors here too.

There are many directors who are held in high esteem by fans of film noir, and of cinema in general. These include: Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Phil Karlson, John Huston, Jules Dassin, Jacques Tourneur, Anthony Mann and of course, Robert Siodmak. Siodmak hit the ground running in 1944 with a string of nine successful films noir starting with Phantom Lady. This was followed by Christmas Holiday, The Suspect, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, The Spiral Staircase, The Killers, The Dark Mirror, Cry of the City, Criss Cross and The File on Thelma Jordan. The 11th noir wasn’t so successful, this was 1950’s Deported, shot on location in Italy.

A ship docks in Naples and starts off-loading cargo and one man, Victor Mario Sparducci. Sparducci is played by Jeff Chandler, who is a mobster going by the name, Vic Smith. Chandler has just finished a 5 year prison bit for a $100,000 robbery. The cash was never recovered by the Police. Chandler, after he finished his term, was escorted to the docks and deported back to the old country. This is before he can grab the $100,000.

Chandler is barely off the docks in Naples when he runs into the pretty, Marina Berti. Berti invites Chandler to her rooms for a drink and a cuddle, which our man Jeff is all too happy to accept. This of course does not go as Chandler had expected. Waiting for him at Berti’s place is fellow mobster, Richard Rober. Rober has followed Chandler from the States. He is not amused that he never got his cut of the $100,000 holdup the two had arranged.

Some less than friendly words and fists are exchanged over the financial situation, with Rober being laid out. Chandler informs Rober that he intends to keep the whole take. “I did five years for that money, so as far as I’m concerned, it is mine.” Chandler then tells Rober to stay away, or he will kill him.

 

Chandler then heads for the small village his family had left when he was a child. He hides out with his uncle, Silvio Mincioti, while he plans a way to get his cash over to him from the States. Chandler soon hooks up with the village’s black market boss, Carlo Rizzo. He figures he will need Rizzo’s help once he comes up with a plan to retrieve his cash.

While all this is going on, Chandler finds time to romance local beauty, Marta Toren. Toren is a wealthy widow who spends her time doing charity work for the local poor. Toren soon falls for the rather rough around the edges Chandler.

This all happens in the first 20 minutes. The film then loses steam and becomes a travelogue for the next 30 plus minutes. This seemed to be a regular problem with American films being made overseas at the time. There really is no on screen sparks between Chandler and Toren. Their scenes together are more or less dead time. The film however, does catch fire again in the last 10 minutes.

Chandler has found the perfect way to get his cash from the States. He cables the person in the States holding his money, to buy 100 grand worth of food and medical supplies. These he has shipped to Italy to be given to the village. The trick here is that Chandler intends to hi-jack the items, then, sell them on the black market for 5 times the cost.

The viewer of course know there is going to be a falling out with Chandler and the black market types. There is also the added complication that Rober is back in play. The mandatory guns are produced and some well done violence ensues.

Also in the film is Claude Dauphin and if you look close and you will spot bit players Tito Vuolo and Vito Scotti.
The director of photography is Oscar winner, William H. Daniels. His noir work includes, Brute Force, Lured, The Naked City, Illegal Entry, Abandoned, Winchester ’73, Woman in Hiding and Forbidden. He also did the last reviewed film here by Colin, Foxfire.
The screenplay was by one time Oscar nominated Robert Buckner. Buckner also produced the film.
Considering all the talent involved is this film, it does not hit the mark. There are parts here that are quite well handled, but the quick start and the finish are not quite enough to save the film from at best, just being average. It suffers from a tad too much dead time. For a Siodmak film, I found it rather disappointing.
(INFO) All three of the leads died before their time with Toren going at 31, Rober at 42 and Chandler at 43.
The only means of viewing the movie at the moment appears to be online – https://ok.ru/video/772666952344
Gordon Gates