The Texas Rangers

There is something wildly entertaining about dipping into that era when Hollywood thought nothing of gleefully ripping pages if not whole chapters out of the history books in order to mix and match the characters, events and consequences the writers had decided would feature in their story. What makes it especially enjoyable is the fact this unapologetic grinding up facts had no agenda whatsoever, no nods to knowing, joyless postmodernism, nothing more in fact than a desire to present a piece of straightforward entertainment. The Texas Rangers (1951) works on the principle that the key to success is to pack as many big name outlaws as possible into the plot and have the hero take on this rogues’ gallery. If you are after an accurate depiction of the past, then it’s probably best to give this one a miss. If, on the other hand, you’re in the market for a pacy and uncomplicated western, this one will fit the bill.

Somewhat at odds with the fanciful nature of the tale which will unfold, the opening scenes attempt to place the characters in some sort of context. Suffice to say that we’re in Texas in the years following the Civil War and the Reconstruction. There is then a brief introduction to the main outlaws: Sam Bass (William Bishop) looks to be a model of charm and courtesy, smiling as he efficiently robs a train, only allowing the facade of politeness to drop momentarily as he ruthlessly guns down a less compliant passenger; John Wesley Hardin (John Dehner) is dapper, cool and devious, a gentlemanly killer; the most sadistic of all is Dave Rudabaugh (Douglas Kennedy), grinning maliciously as he savagely drives a knife through another man’s hand in the course of a not so friendly card game. Then there is Johnny Carver (George Montgomery) who, along with Buff Smith (Noah Beery Jr), runs into trouble during a botched bank raid. Actually, he runs into a bullet fired by a treacherous Sundance Kid (Ian Macdonald) and consequently ends up serving hard time as an accessory to murder.

So, with Texas descending into near anarchy as a result of the activities of the gang headed up by Sam Bass, the authorities have to be seen to act. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Major John B Jones (John Litel) of the Texas Rangers has Carver and Smith released on probation, on condition they serve under him with the aim of smashing the power of the Bass gang. And that is essentially what it is all about, a not unfamiliar story of men with an unsavory past given an opportunity to redeem themselves by taking on and ultimately infiltrating a criminal organization. Along the way, there are enough  brawls, chases, shootouts, betrayals and twists to satisfy even the most demanding viewer.

Phil Karlson, working from a story by Frank Gruber and a script by Richard Schayer, rarely lets the action portrayed on screen pause for breath. Incident piles on top of incident and no situation is allowed to hang around till it grows unwelcome. The plot is tied to that classic theme of redemption which is never far from the surface in so many westerns of the 1950s, but it’s never particularly emphasized here. Nevertheless, it is present for those who want it, and I’m certainly a person who appreciates this aspect, even when (or perhaps because) it serves to ground the most escapist fare. For a movie that is almost determinedly lacking in pretension and which prides itself on its sense of urgency, The Texas Rangers looks both handsome and stylish. Karlson never misses a chance to employ a telling close-up, to shoot from an unexpected angle or to frame a scene in an interesting way.

George Montgomery’s laid-back style is used to fine effect in this movie, there’s an assurance coupled with exuberance about him, and when you factor in the easy grace with which he moves around the frame it’s evident how comfortable he was in a western setting. His two big dramatic scenes, played out with Jerome Courtland and Noah Beery respectively, are handled competently enough but the fact is that area wasn’t his strongest suit. Beery is his usual homespun self, appealingly diffident and upright. Of the outlaw band, William Bishop gets more screen time as befits his role and he’s fine, although there’s not the menace about him one might expect. However, that is certainly not the case with Douglas Kennedy. He looks and acts implacably mean, being responsible for, and seeming to relish, some of the more reprehensible pieces of villainy. John Dehner rarely fails to impress, even in minor roles, and he adds some scene-stealing polish to his part as the untrustworthy killer. Ian Macdonald scowls effectively and Jock Mahoney takes another step on the path that would lead him from stuntman to star. The only woman in the film is Gale Storm but her part as a newspaperwoman whose father was murdered by the Sundance Kid is sadly underdeveloped, tracing an arc from hostility to devotion that never feels the least bit convincing.

The Texas Rangers doesn’t appear to be available as a DVD or Blu-ray anywhere, or at least I haven’t been able to come across any releases. If anybody reading this happens to know of one, I’d be pleased to hear about it. However, it can usually be viewed online, and with satisfactory picture quality too. A good many of George Montgomery’s westerns are now available, although there are still a few notable absences such as this. Generally speaking, I think a lot of Columbia’s second string westerns don’t get a lot of love. Sure many of them are pretty frugal affairs, shot fast and sometimes featuring casts that won’t have the name recognition to make them easily marketable to a modern audience. That said, it’s worth remembering that movies of this type were the staples that kept the genre going for so long. The Texas Rangers is not a classic, but it is an attractive film that never wastes a moment of its 75 minute running time. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay is to say that it is simply a pleasure to watch.

Hell on Frisco Bay

So what do you want from a movie? Most of us will probably settle for an entertaining and competent piece of work that keeps us engaged for as long as the reels are turning. If there happens to be something in the mix that encourages us to think about some matter in a different light, or even simply encourages us to think, then that’s all to the good. Plenty of movies fulfill the first half of that equation and a respectable number will have enough of the second to elevate them above the routine or the run-of-the-mill. And then there is promise, and its deadly first cousin potential. Both of those may be hard to define but are, nevertheless, instantly recognizable, and both have colored responses to more than a few movies over the years. Hell on Frisco Bay (1955) certainly promises much, what with that cast and a plot derived from a William P McGivern novel. The end result? Well, it’s passable as entertainment and has a handful of themes sprinkled through the script that ought to have been explored further, but there is something vaguely unsatisfying about the whole affair.

Steve Rollins (Alan Ladd) is fresh out of San Quentin, having done five years for a crime he didn’t commit. He is still smarting over the loss of his freedom, the loss of his job and reputation, and also the loss of respect for his wife Marcia (Joanne Dru). She succumbed to weakness while he was inside and was unfaithful, meaning that Rollins’ dogged desire for vindication has an extra edge. He knows that the boss of the waterfront rackets Vic Amato (Edward G Robinson) was the figure responsible for the frame-up but finding a way to clear his name and bring it home to the mobster means tracking down certain men. One of them has disappeared, and is later confirmed to be dead, while his main dockland contact won’t be long in joining him. Despite the setbacks and the bitterness that is never far from the surface, Rollins bulldozes his way though the hoods and enforcers till he finds an opening. It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with crime stories to learn that this opening gets busted wide open not merely as a result of the external pressure applied by Rollins, but via the scheming and antagonism seething within the criminals’ own closed circle.

I’ve seen Hell on Frisco Bay billed as a film noir, but I’m not convinced it really is. It is a crime story for sure, but neither the colorful ‘Scope visuals nor the overall tone of the piece recall noir to this viewer. I guess the presence of the leads, and the name of William P McGivern (Odds Against Tomorrow, Rogue Cop, The Big Heat) loom large and fuel that impression. While I don’t particularly care how or even if the movie is labeled, I will admit that those aforementioned factors raised my expectations. The plot, a typical McGivern tale of compromised cops, isn’t going to provide major surprises but a bigger problem is the flatness, the absence of (for the want of a better word) passion in its telling, and that’s not what I normally think of when approaching a Sydney Boehm script. There is of course an undercurrent of sadism to the needling relationship between Robinson and his top boy played by Paul Stewart. As well as that, the hypocrisy highlighted by Robinson’s outwardly devout domestic arrangements and his lusting after Stewart’s girlfriend (Fay Wray) adds another layer, but none of it feels especially compelling.

Director Frank Tuttle and cinematographer John Seitz enjoyed great success more than a decade earlier when they made This Gun for Hire with Alan Ladd. However, there is none of the freshness of that movie about Hell on Frisco Bay. Ladd was starting to look tired and dissipated at this point, not a major problem in itself given the background of his character, but despite his best efforts, I didn’t feel much of a spark about his quest for justice along the waterfront. Robinson fares better as the villain and there are a few nicely shot scenes juxtaposing the religious iconography around his home and the murderous intent he harbors there. He shares a few mean-spirited moments with Paul Stewart’s reluctant killer; the scene with them setting up a fateful hit as they verbally fence with one another while prowling around Fay Wray’s  tastefully feminine lounge as well as a subsequent piece of lethal horse-trading in Robinson’s kitchen gives another meaning to the term domestic suspense.

Joanne Dru was the top-billed actress in the movie and is handed an interesting back story, although this is never as fully explored as it might have been. Her role as a nightclub chanteuse means she gets to sing The Very Thought of You and It Had to Be You, although apparently dubbed by Bonnie Lee Williams on both. I don’t know if it’s down to the way Ladd’s character reacts to her throughout, but she seems ill-served by the script. Fay Wray is given a little more to work with as the former starlet now reduced to slumming with the waterfront hoods. In support, it is good to see William Demarest, Nestor Paiva, Willis Bouchey, Anthony Caruso, and a young Rod Taylor. I might also mention that Jayne Mansfield pops up in a brief bit part.

Hell on Frisco Bay has been released by the Warner Archive on both DVD and Blu-ray, so it’s easily accessible. I picked up the movie a few years ago based on the cast, the crew and the source material. I wouldn’t say I came to it hoping to have stumbled on some neglected gem – after all, those are not as common as we might like to believe – but I did think credits such as those it boasted would make it worthwhile viewing. Ultimately, while it is moderately entertaining and watching it is hardly a chore, it is not something I can see myself racing to return to. One to look out for should it appear in the broadcast schedules perhaps.

Some other views on the movie can be found at:
Vienna’s Classic Hollywood
Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings

Ten Wanted Men

Ever wonder why some movies don’t quite work even when everything one might reasonably associate with success seems to be in place, on paper at least. I’m not talking about outright flops here, failures where all the flaws are appear to be almost proudly displayed. No, I mean those vaguely disappointing films, the kind we come to initially with all kinds of heightened and elevated expectations due to the pedigree of the people involved. When those expectations aren’t met there is often an aftertaste to the experience that has a tartness and bitterness to it. Such films can rankle in a way a more brazen turkey never will. Ten Wanted Men (1955) was one of those titles that had provoked dissatisfaction in me when I viewed it. The deficit between what it promised and what it delivered was a source of discontent for me for a long time, and so I thought I might revisit it to see how it would fare when approached in a different frame of mind. Read on…

Western movies whose plots revolve around range wars are legion, that collision of ambition, greed and vanity providing storylines and thematic possibilities that are ripe for exploitation. When a little extra spice in the form of romantic rivalry or sexual obsession is added to the mix, it’s not unreasonable to think that what is finally served up will be even more tantalizing. Such is the case with Ten Wanted Men, where after an exciting and tense yet ultimately deceptive opening, the character of John Stewart (Randolph Scott) is introduced. He’s just had a harmless laugh at the expense of his greenhorn brother (Lester Matthews) and nephew Howie (Skip Homeier). Stewart is a big man in the territory, and the lavish party he is hosting is a testament to his generosity and largesse. As this is a fairly quick moving picture not much time is wasted in presenting the main source of conflict which will carry the viewer through till the climax. This is embodied in the person of Wick Campbell (Richard Boone), a neighbor of Stewart’s and a rival for the right to dominate the land.

If that all sounds somewhat feudal, the theme is further alluded to by the fact that Campbell not only yearns for but also feels himself entitled to the affections of Maria Segura (Donna Martell), the young Mexican girl he has nurtured. That she does not reciprocate that feeling is one thing, but matters are brought to a head by the interest Howie shows in the girl. When she seeks sanctuary and protection under Stewart’s roof all of Campbell’s pent up resentment and thwarted passion burst forth. Emotionally burnt and humiliated, he must have vengeance, and now it won’t be enough to merely supplant Stewart as top dog, there is a debt that must be repaid in full and in kind. So it is that Campbell hires a crew of gunmen led by Scavo (Leo Gordon) with the aim of drawing his rivals into a shooting war.

So, did Ten Wanted Men fare better this time round? Well, yes and no. It is not some misunderstood and unfairly maligned gem. However, it’s not an irredeemable dud either. Director Bruce Humberstone is not someone with extensive experience of the western, I mainly think of him as the man in charge of a handful of entertaining Charlie Chan features as well as the proto-noir I Wake Up Screaming. That said, his handling of this movie is fine, if not especially remarkable. The Old Tucson locations are attractively shot by Wilfrid Cline, who has the frequently used interiors looking good too, while the essentially minimalist score by Paul Sawtell has a moody and vaguely melancholy quality to it that I found appealing. These are all more or less pluses with the sharp pace and abundance of incident contributing a little more weight to that side of the scales.

Nevertheless, it’s not a wholly satisfying experience, certainly not in the way the level of talent involved might encourage one to believe. I think it stems from the writing, or aspects of it at any rate. The script is by Kenneth Gamet from a story by Harriet Frank and Irving Ravetch. Gamet had scripted a number good westerns, many featuring Randolph Scott – A Lawless Street, Coroner Creek, Man in the Saddle, The Doolins of Oklahoma to name just a few. Harriet Frank had a compact but extraordinarily strong list of credits. She was a writer on the underrated Silver River, provided the story for Nicholas Ray’s Run for Cover, would go on adapt two Martin Ritt/Paul Newman pictures in Hud and Hombre (the latter offering a memorable role for Richard Boone) from novels by Larry McMurtry and Elmore Leonard respectively, and scripted a Vincente Minnelli film I’m particularly fond of in Home from the Hill. As such, we are not talking about writers with a poor track record here. And yet some things don’t quite gel.

There is not much to fault in the performance of Randolph Scott, and in fairness there rarely was in his work throughout the 1950s, but the character itself is a  little lacking. He starts out with that characteristic gallantry firmly to the fore and then later lets the harder core become more apparent as circumstances conspire to try him. However, there’s a flatness to the arc this character describes, as though the experiences he has do not appear to shape him and there is no sense that I can detect of his having learned anything  about himself by the time the credits roll. Then there is Boone, a brooding and truculent presence early on, he grows more tightly coiled and repressed as he relentlessly applies pressure to his enemies. It’s only near the end though that another dimension makes an appearance, when his desperation and frustration strip away restraint as he confronts Martell and confesses the full extent of his infatuation. This is one of the better and more intense moments yet it comes too late in proceedings. Of course Scott and his producing partner Harry Joe Brown clearly saw enough in what Boone put on screen to hire him for the pivotal role of Frank Usher in The Tall T.

Skip Homeier must have made an impression too as he would also get cast in both The Tall T and the later Comanche Station. Jocelyn Brando has the biggest female role in the picture but her romance with Scott has little spark about it and it’s largely superfluous. In a crowded field of talented supporting players Leo Gordon is as malevolent as ever and one could hardly ask for a finer chief henchman. Lee Van Cleef makes the most of a showy bit part and Denver Pyle exits relatively early, but not before his slyly provocative troublemaker brings matters to a head. Finally, mentions ought to be made for the likes of Kathleen Crowley, Dennis Weaver, Tom Powers and Alfonso Bedoya.

Ten Wanted Men came out on DVD from Sony years ago, looking sharp and colorful in an open-matte presentation. If it has subsequently appeared anywhere in high definition, I don’t recall hearing about it. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never heard anything especially positive about this movie and I can’t say it enthused me much when I first saw it. Returning to it now after the passage of a good many years, I still wouldn’t go so far as to say it deserves reassessment. Nevertheless, it’s far from an objectively bad piece of work. Certain aspects of the writing and characterization lack the fire it needs to raise it yet there are points of interest and enjoyment to be found as there are in almost all of Scott’s westerns. All told, I can’t say I regretted revisiting this title.

Lightning Strikes Twice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drums Across the River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murder Without Crime

Looking at the beginning of a filmmaker’s career can be an eye-opener, either for good or bad reasons. Some directors start out with only a shadow of the confidence and assurance they would later develop, resulting in debut efforts that are clearly the work of a novice. Others hit the ground running, creating the illusion that they had been in this line of work forever. Murder Without Crime (1950) was the first feature directed by J Lee Thompson, a man whose subsequent career would be a lengthy and varied one. The movie has a great deal going for it in terms of both pacing and visuals, although there are other aspects of it which are more problematic. All told though it suggested that the man in the director’s chair had a promising future ahead of him.

Murder Without Crime is a self-contained affair following the fortunes of just four Londoners over the course of one evening. Stephen (Derek Farr) is, according to the narrator, an author of moderate success. He is married to Jan (Patricia Plunkett), but it does not appear to be a happy union. Jan suspects infidelity and Stephen doesn’t have the demeanor of an  entirely trustworthy man. They row, tempers become frayed, accusations and threats get tossed around, and Jan storms out vowing never to return. What then is a churlish and vaguely immature man supposed to do under the circumstances? Why, allow his smug and supercilious landlord Matthew (Dennis Price) to take him out on the town to drown his sorrows in a Soho night club. That then is the location where the fourth piece of the ensuing puzzle makes her appearance; Grena (Joan Dowling) is a hostess in the club and the lovelorn Stephen catches her attention. To cut to the chase, Stephen and Grena eventually end up back at his place, where he veers disconcertingly between maudlin and passionate while she is simply kittenish. Things take a nasty turn though with Grena feeling rejected and insulted before it escalates into a tussle over an antique dagger that sees Stephen shove her, causing her to fall and strike her head.

Such a turn of events would be enough to panic even the most levelheaded and self-assured individual, neither of which characteristic could be used to describe Stephen. His first thought is to conceal the deed, but he is not taking account of the suspicious and predatory nature of the ever vigilant Matthew in the flat below. The opportunity now exists to apply some pressure on the hapless Stephen, with Matthew sadistically teasing and tormenting him with allusions to his  guilt, toying with him pitilessly before blackmailing him.

J Lee Thompson had started out as a writer and one of his earliest plays went by the name of Double Error. It seems to have enjoyed some success, being performed in the West End as well as later revivals in the US. In 1950 Thompson had the chance to make his first movie and Double Error was adapted for the screen as Murder Without Crime. The stage origins are apparent in the small cast and limited locations but the cinema version has some very striking visual flourishes, with sharply canted angles and moody noir style cinematography helping to build up atmosphere and suggest a world where the mentality of the people we follow is as skewed and quirky as the imagery on the screen.

Everything moves along at a comfortable pace, scenes never drag and it all wraps up in a way that is brisk without being rushed. However, there are some weaknesses that shouldn’t be glossed over. Firstly, there is a voice-over that adds little to the proceedings and comes off as smug and smarmy where I suspect it was actually aiming for knowing sophistication. Then the score by Philip Green is one of those intrusive efforts, making its presence felt far too strongly and drawing attention to itself far too often – I have always felt a score ought to complement the visuals, enhance the mood rather than stomp all over it. Finally, there are the characters who people this drama. I don’t reckon it is necessary for audiences to be able to identify with the characters they watch but there should be someone they can at least sympathize with. The problem with Murder Without Crime is that nobody is actually all that likeable.

Dennis Price was a fixture of many British movies throughout the 1940s and 1950s, excelling at playing men at once remote and bilious. Kind Hearts and Coronets may well be his best work but there are numerous examples of delicious unpleasantness in his list of credits. As Matthew he is seedy, louche and superior, and downright mean-spirited. Up against Price is Derek Farr, in a role that really needs to have some feature we the viewers can root for. What we get, however, is a portrait of a weak and truculent type, a man who is struggling to save up to make a down payment on a chin. While Stephen surely feels sorry for himself and worries a lot about how everything will pan out, I was of the opinion that any misfortune he suffered was richly deserved.

The women fare only marginally better. Patricia Plunkett rightly walks out on Stephen at the beginning, but her resolve weakens far too quickly. When she returns it is hard to see how she is justified in helping out this man who is clearly unworthy of her. That she continues to do so even after she learns how he behaved had me scratching my head. The tragic Joan Dowling does some good work as the clinging hostess but, once again, it is difficult to like her. The fact is all four of these actors turn in good performances, but the the characters they play are for the most part distasteful.

Murder Without Crime is a modest picture, telling a simple yet twisty story economically. Network released the movie on DVD almost a decade ago and it looks like it has now gone out of print, although used copies can still be picked up at reasonable prices. That old DVD was quite strong and boasted the kind of transfer that did justice to the visuals. It is a tight little crime story from a director who was just starting out and even if it has some weaknesses (which I hope I haven’t overstated here), it still makes for an enjoyable way to spend eighty minutes of your time.

Accused of Murder

Years ago I put up a short post on films noir shot in color. I included at the end a list of movies I had found online that were supposed to fit the bill. While I had seen most of those titles at that time, there were, however, a few which had eluded me. Having recently caught up with Joseph Kane’s Accused of Murder (1956), I can now say I’ve viewed all of them. I can also state that, despite my own broad and inclusive approach to such categorization, this movie falls outside of the parameters of film noir. To me, it’s a straightforward crime or mystery picture.

There are gangsters and night clubs, cops and killers, but there’s not a lot of ambiguity on display. The opening scene sees Ilona Vance (Vera Ralston) making her debut singing in a club and watched by the man who (apparently without her knowledge) has secured the job for her. He is Frank Hobart (Sidney Blackmer), and he has just made the fatal mistake of double-crossing a mobster and compounded that error by threatening the enforcer (Warren Stevens) sent to put the squeeze on him. After Hobart tries to pressure Ilona into spending the evening with him, and she declines, his body, replete with a .38 slug, is discovered round the corner from a cheap clip joint. A bad break for Hobart of course, but it’s not good news for Ilona either as she was the last person seen in his company. There is a witness, a tired and jaded hostess (Virginia Grey), who could place the scar-faced enforcer at the scene of the crime but she has her eyes on the main chance. The investigation falls to the cautious Lieutenant Hargis (David Brian) and his impulsive subordinate Sergeant Lackey (Lee Van Cleef), whose contrasting methods and views of the suspect provide the meat in the ensuing drama.

Joe Kane was a prolific filmmaker, a Republic “house director” who took charge of all kinds of movies, but is probably better known, or more highly regarded, for his westerns. In spite of the large number of films he made in the course of his long career, I have only seen a handful. Shot in Naturama, a ‘Scope format used by Republic, Accused of Murder is a very colorful affair. Some of the early scenes have a noirish look, taking place at night and featuring the kind of lighting and angles commonly associated with that style or genre. For the most part though, it has a bright and sunny appearance, and the ultra-widescreen process is only intermittently used to its best advantage.

I get the impression that the movie was aiming for the glossy and polished look of a Ross Hunter production (admittedly, the presence of Virginia Grey, who appeared in more than a few of Hunter’s films, might be influencing me here) but it doesn’t quite achieve that. I’m not sure whether it’s the exclusive use of studio sets or the art direction, but there is more of a television vibe than anything else. Kane’s sense of pace is fine, however, and the story never outstays its welcome. This is just as well as the plot is a thin one and  wouldn’t have stood up to unnecessary padding or stretching. As I said earlier, there is no real ambiguity, and even if there is an attempt to add a twist towards the end, it still plays out without any surprises. The script was by W R Burnett, adapting his own novel, and bearing in mind some of the other films from this source (High Sierra, Dark Command, The Asphalt Jungle, to name a few), one might be forgiven for hoping for something with a bit more punch.

So, here we have another Republic movie where Vera Ralston was handed the lead. Last year, I looked at The Flame, where I felt she did reasonably well without ever being the least bit memorable. Her work in  Accused of Murder is, however, weaker. Firstly, the writing does her no favors by having what feels like countless people telling us time and again how sweet and good she is;  this drains all doubt from the viewer’s mind about a role where one ought to be wondering which of the two cops on the case has a handle on her true character. Ralston does what she can with the part but she wasn’t the most expressive actress at the best of times and there is little real sense of anguish or turmoil conveyed. I think David Brian tended to be more enjoyable in villainous or less sympathetic parts, he had that kind of face, but he could and did play sympathetic types equally well. He grounds the movie as the thoughtful cop attracted to the chief suspect yet unable to entirely shake off his reservations.

Speaking of actors with a face best suited to an unsympathetic part, Lee Van Cleef surely ranks high among them. Accused of Murder afforded him the opportunity to snarl and smirk to his heart’s content, and his ultimate conversion consequently feels slightly disappointing. Warren Stevens has a ball threatening and terrorizing all who get in his way, and he is genuinely intimidating. Virginia Grey had that weary look down pat, a faded glamor that was well used in those aforementioned Ross Hunter pictures. Her would-be chiseler comes in for some rough treatment from Stevens and this adds a real edge to the movie. Smaller supporting roles are filled by Barry Kelley, Frank Puglia and a whiny, sweat-stained and unscrupulous Elisha Cook Jr.

To the best of my knowledge, Accused of Murder has not had any official release on physical media anywhere. Nevertheless, it is easy to track down online versions of the movie for viewing, and in remarkably good condition to boot. I don’t feel it is a film noir, although I should also say I find myself increasingly of the opinion that labels are of little importance. As a film, it is so-so; it holds the attention, looks attractive and features a few solid performances, yet it never rises far above mediocre. Even if I wasn’t bowled over by it, I’m certainly pleased to have seen the movie and I suspect others may get more out of it.

The Purple Plain

One of my reasons for starting up this blog in the dim and distant past was to try to drum up a  bit of interest in films that had been neglected to some extent. The passage of time has seen me broaden those aims of course, but I like to think I still focus sporadically on the kind of movies that don’t always get so much attention.  One such movie is The Purple Plain (1954) from Robert Parrish, a director whose work I find very appealing for the most part. It is a story of war, of survival, and of unexpected romance and has at its heart notions of renewal, rediscovery and rebirth, themes which have enriched so many classic westerns yet which are used skillfully and successfully here.

The on screen caption informs us that it’s Burma in 1945, the latter stages of WWII. Of course the war has not yet ended and the mental strain of the long years of combat and the attendant losses is brought into sharp relief by the opening scene. A man is shocked into wakefulness by the sounds of an imminent air raid. Startled, he darts out into the night, pounding along the primitive airstrip towards his plane, determined to get it aloft and to stand at least a fighting chance. His crew seem unaware of the danger though and as he struggles to sense this into them it becomes apparent that his grip on reality is tenuous. This man is Forrester (Gregory Peck), a Canadian pilot who is clearly suffering from PTSD.

This is further highlighted when his moodiness, disassociation and recklessness are seen to alienate almost everyone he comes into contact with, all but two people anyway. The first is the medical officer Harris (Bernard Lee), a thoughtful, humanitarian type who regards Forrester as a challenge as opposed to some hopeless lost soul. It is through the efforts of Harris to encourage Forrester to establish contact with others again that he encounters the other person who is able to reach him. Anna (Win Min Than) is a resident of a local Christian mission and it is she more than anyone else who manages to penetrate the tortured cocoon which Forrester has constructed around himself.

Here we have the emotional hub around which the movie revolves, and it is a powerful one. It needs to be too because Forrester is shown to be a man who has abandoned life itself, who has not only been scarred by the war but has dedicated himself to dying. In short, Forrester is about to plunge into a spiritual abyss. For a man to haul himself back from such a precipitous position requires both iron resolve and an all-consuming motive. That motive is the simple love he has inspired and in turn been touched by. This has to be credible, credible enough to make a man start to regain an appetite for living, and credible enough too to sustain him when he finds himself cast into the wilderness and facing the twin trials of not merely surviving but ensuring the salvation of those dependent on him. In The Purple Plain it feels wholly credible at all times.

Given the right material, Robert Parrish was a director capable of great sensitivity, able to tap into some deep humanist reserve to produce works that linger in the memory. For me, The Purple Plain is one of those movies where direction, writing, cinematography and performances all mesh perfectly. Working from a story by H E Bates, Eric Ambler (one of the finest thriller/espionage novelists of the 20th century) fashions a script that is compact, accessible and absorbing. Geoffrey Unsworth’s photography is lush and evocative, using nighttime filters attractively (which is no mean feat), while future director Clive Donner edits the whole thing in such a way as to disguise the limitations of the budget. Parrish brings all of this together with great assurance and skill. The visuals have a style and economy that is is admirable, a case in point being an early flashback sequence, a fast cut montage combining love, chaos, destruction and loss. We are swept along from intimacy to devastation in just 90 seconds, the director concisely conveying all we need to know about the bleak despair of Peck’s character in that brief burst of action. Visually, Parrish captures and communicates the prevailing mood with aplomb throughout though, from the softness and warmth of the moments Forrester and Anna share to the stark and spartan atmosphere of the wilderness whether by day or by night.

Peck does remarkably good work as a man existing on the periphery of desperation, thrown a lifeline and offered a chance to rebuild his life. He moves effortlessly from the remote detachment at the beginning to a halting, uncertain awareness of a fresh opportunity and then finally on to a grim determination to maintain a hold on life and hope. Underpinning all this is Win Min Than as the soft spoken Burmese with an unshakeable faith and devotion. Perhaps her contribution is even more remarkable given the fact she wasn’t really an actress and this would be her only film role. She brings what I can only describe as intense serenity to her part and the result is that her scenes with Peck have a power and tenderness that is very moving, attaining an almost oneiric quality that builds up to that final shot which is all the more satisfying for its subtlety.

Frankly, the movie is all about those two, which is not to say that Bernard Lee, Maurice Denham, Lyndon Brook or Brenda De Banzie should be overlooked. Each one of them brings something vital to the film and each one lays down a spiritual marker to assist Peck’s character on his path back to fulfillment.

I understand the US Blu-ray of The Purple Plain is presented in a 1.66:1 widescreen ratio. My own copy is the UK DVD, which is 1.33:1, and I can’t say it looked poorly framed. The colors are well rendered and it is sharp and clear. To reiterate what I said at the top of this piece, this is a film that I believe has been afforded less attention than it deserves. It is a fine effort, touching on some eternal themes and presented in a way that is positive, affirmative and cinematic.

The Tall Stranger

Thematically, what is the western all about? That’s a big question, bearing in mind the breadth and endurance of the genre. So many themes have been encompassed over the decades and plots have woven all types of ideas into the fabric of the genre. I frequently return to the notion of redemption and it naturally crops up time and again, but I’m inclined to think the western is all about searching. Sure John Ford made one of the greatest movies of all time with that word and idea helping to form its title, but the concept of groups and individuals forever ranging towards a mythical west in search of something is at the root of so many stories. Even that is a nebulous comment and open to all kinds of interpretations so I’ll try to nail it down a bit. I reckon the western is primarily about seeking out a place of one’s own, either a spiritual or physical promised land, somewhere for characters to fulfill themselves, to add that last elusive piece to the puzzle of their own existence. For one reason or another, I found myself mulling this over the other day as I watched The Tall Stranger (1957), a decidedly modest western and one which I doubt the filmmakers actively thought of in those terms. Still, just because a theme may not have been foremost in the minds of those making a movie does not mean it is not there, or that is any less relevant as a consequence.

From feuds and fights to romance and reputations, The Tall Stranger has no shortage of ideas to bulk out its 80 minute running time. The opening image is a staple of the genre, with a lone rider making his way across the wilderness, his eyes probing the horizon and beyond, searching for something. Ned Bannon (Joel McCrea)  chances upon a group of men riding herd on some cattle and, out of curiosity, pauses to take a better look. That proves to be a mistake, costing him his horse and almost his own life at the hands of an unseen sniper. As he lies on the ground seriously wounded and at the edge of consciousness, he glimpses the gold-plated rifle and fancy spurs sported by his assailant. However, Bannon is a lucky man and is rescued and nursed back to health by a wagon train of former Confederates heading west and hoping for a fresh start in California. In among those is Ellen (Virginia Mayo), a woman bringing up a little boy on her own. These two people find themselves drawn to each other, perhaps as a result of their shared status as outsiders, Bannon’s having been a Union officer adding to his otherness next to the Southerners. A few of those plot elements are therefore seeded quite early, but the depths of the feuding and conflict are mined later. We first learn that Bannon is headed back to the ranch run by his half-brother, a man who has sworn revenge on him for the death of his only son during the war, then there is another layer of conflict to come as the settlers, under the influence of a manipulative opportunist, make their minds up to stake out a piece of the sprawling ranch for themselves. As such, everything is set up for a showdown between these competing forces and personalities, all of them looking to carve out and lay claim to a little corner of the world to call their own.

While The Tall Stranger is not a particularly ambitious movie, or certainly not one which sets out its stall to deal head on with big themes, it manages to incorporate some of those core ingredients of the genre into its compact form and structure. The concept of competing factions in conflict over the land itself is timeless, one that underpins not just the western but so much human drama. That the events on screen take place in the immediate aftermath of a war over control of the country emphasizes the never ending nature of this struggle among men for mastery of the land, of the hunger to make it theirs. Yet it is the more personal need to achieve a sense of belonging and permanence that is of greater interest. Bannon is a man made rootless by his personal feuds and the scars of battle. He is, however, an optimist in the best western tradition, forever looking ahead to greener pastures and better times. In Ellen he discovers someone else cast adrift in the world, a self-confessed fugitive from tutting puritanism. The need of these two lonely people for something as simple as a home, a place to lay down their own roots and tend to them quietly, provides the heart of the story, and in its own way is an unpretentious reflection of the perennial appeal of the western.

Joel McCrea was one of the linchpin actors of the western, as essential to its development as John Wayne, James Stewart, Randolph Scott or Gary Cooper. All the great western actors brought something unique and special to the table, and in McCrea’s case it was that sense of dignified and courtly decency. He shares some fine moments with Virginia Mayo, not least an early scene where he rides off, perhaps never to return as far as the two of them are concerned at that stage, and the unspoken regret and hurt of both is palpable. Later, there is the scene outside the ranch house, where Mayo tells of her past with raw frankness and McCrea perfectly encapsulates the innocent bewilderment of his character. Both Mayo and McCrea had starred in Raoul Walsh’s marvelous Colorado Territory almost  a decade earlier and The Tall Stranger reunited them. While the relationship in this movie may not have the hot and tragic passion of that in Walsh’s work, their quiet, understated yearning is every bit as powerful and compelling.

The supporting cast is deep and strong, with Leo Gordon and Michael Pate in rare sympathetic roles and Barry Kelley providing plenty of meaty bluster as McCrea’s hardheaded half-brother. The villains of the piece are a flashily dangerous Michael Ansara and George Neise as the chief pot stirrer. Ray Teal and Whit Bissell have small parts and their presence is as welcome as ever.

With a script by Christopher Knopf (Hell Bent for Leather) from a Louis L’Amour novel, The Tall Stranger packs a lot into its relatively brief running time. Director Thomas Carr has it looking reasonably good and uses the ‘Scope frame well, but there is, in my opinion anyway, an over-reliance on day-for-night filters. I don’t believe the movie has had a release on disc anywhere which respects the aspect ratio. However, it can usually be viewed in the correct ‘Scope format online, and in very good quality too.

Sometimes the least likely places harbor the clearest truths, pared down modesty serving to draw attention to the essentials where intricacy and ambition can perhaps end up obscuring them – Sir Isaac Newton once made a similar point in much more elegant terms when he said: “Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.” So, to finish up, The Tall Stranger will never make anyone’s list of top westerns yet it contains within it, and maybe even in spite of itself, a lot of what makes the genre work.

They Rode West

A movie is a journey, one undertaken by characters and observed by viewers, and the degree to which it can be considered a success depends on how much those characters have learnt about themselves and the world they occupy by the time they reach their destination. I think this holds true for most films, whatever the genre, but it plays an even more significant role in the western. The western, despite its frequent reliance on action, is very much a character driven genre. The great westerns achieve that quality through the development of their characters, emphasizing growth, renewal and redemption along the way. When I view a film like Phil Karlson’s They Rode West (1954) I am left thinking it is only partially successful, which of course is not to say that it fails to entertain or that it has no points of interest in plotting or approach. Ultimately though, the film feels more like an exercise in vindication as opposed to redemption, which is never as rewarding a payoff.

As is the case in any good drama, They Rode West presents multiple layers of conflict. From the beginning it is clear that Captain Blake (Phil Carey) has a strong dislike and distrust of the medical profession. The outpost has had the misfortune to be lumbered with a succession of incompetents, the last of whom has just killed Blake’s friend through drunken negligence. So, when the new replacement, Lieutenant Seward (Robert Francis), turns out to be a green recruit with neither military nor frontier experience, Blake is perhaps understandably antagonistic. This is the main source of conflict that runs through the movie and it is supplemented by a kind of stuttering rivalry over the affections of the Colonel’s niece Laurie (Donna Reed). Alongside that, there is further friction generated by Seward’s compassion and empathy for the plight of the Kiowa of the nearby reservation, feelings which are complicated by his obvious attraction to a white captive (May Wynn). Caught between the hawkish and inflexible Blake and the increasingly frustrated Kiowa, Seward soon finds the call of his conscience has led to him being labeled a traitor (a wood hawk) by the troopers.

They Rode West is a handsome production with Charles Lawton’s cinematography making the best of the Iverson Ranch locations. I can’t find anything to confirm my suspicions, but the shooting style employed by Karlson gives the impression that the movie was shot for 3D presentation. He indulges in a fair few heavily canted angles, which may simply be a stylistic choice, but there are a number of scenes (predominantly action/battle sequences) where those telltale shots of people and objects leaning and falling onto the lens are on display.

Frank Nugent’s screenplay, from a story by Leo Katcher (The Hard Man, Party Girl, Between Midnight and Dawn) has Seward and Blake forever at daggers drawn, principally though not exclusively over their contrasting attitudes towards the Kiowa. This is well enough done and feeds into the more nuanced view of the Indian that an be found throughout westerns of the era, particularly those of Delmer Daves and George Sherman, and elements of this crop up in Karlson’s own later (and superior) Gunman’s Walk. Still, the handling, or maybe I should say the way the characterizations unfold, is not all that satisfactory. As I alluded to at the top of the piece, there is little of the redemptive spirit that enriches so many 1950s westerns. One could, I suppose, argue that Seward’s actions eventually lead to the restoration of trust between the warring sides and that the faith he manages to draw from the both sets of combatants has a redemptive effect on them. However, I feel that is reaching somewhat, that the truth is the tale winds its way to a vindication of the approach championed by Seward from the get go. While that is fine in itself, it means his character has undergone little change; he sees his ideals comes to be accepted and the criticism leveled at him firmly rebutted yet he remains essentially the man we first saw, albeit a little more worldly-wise.

Phil Carey seems like he should have had a bigger career. I guess his credits show he did fine in general, but the fact is, in spite of working for directors such as John Ford and Raoul Walsh, he never rose above second lead in anything other than programmers. Roles like that of Captain Blake can’t have helped, he starts out as abrasive and short-tempered (justifiably so under the circumstances) and basically stays that way till the end credits roll. As I said, there is no renewal or rebirth to be seen here and it’s an ambivalent part too, neither fish nor fowl. Robert Francis gets the noble part and he plays it well, with freshness and decency and he also conveys the doubts and guilt which assail him quite effectively. However, his was a short and tragic life and he would die in a plane crash just a year later at the age of 25 having made only four films. May Wynn (who worked opposite Robert Francis in The Caine Mutiny) has what I feel is the most interesting part in the movie. The role is not an especially taxing one but it is pivotal and, crucially, it offers an unexpected perspective on the life of a captive. She is not portrayed as someone who is seeking escape, but instead as a woman who has reconciled herself to life with the Kiowa and who has no intention of leaving. Donna Reed had just won an Oscar for From Here to Eternity but this film wasn’t going to capitalize on that. Although she has some fun showing a bit of coquetry from time to time, it’s all standard love interest stuff and never particularly memorable.

They Rode West has appeared on DVD in France and Spain and it can generally be tracked down for online viewing too. All in all, it is an enjoyable western, a solid cavalry yarn whose heart is in the right place. It’s attractively put together, has pace and includes some exciting action scenes. Had the scripting allowed some real growth in the characters to take place, I wouldn’t feel the need to offer caveats. So, whilst it won’t make anyone’s list of great westerns, it is still a good one.