The Macomber Affair

There is nothing else than now. There is neither yesterday, certainly, nor is there any tomorrow. How old must you be before you know that? There is only now, and if now is only two days, then two  days is your life and everything in it will be in proportion. This is how you live a life in two days. And if you stop complaining and asking for what you never will get, you will have a good life. A good life is not measured by any biblical span.
Ernest Hemingway

Matters of life and death loom large in the writings of Hemingway, those two certainties which all of us know and which underpin philosophy, religion, and, of course, art. The Macomber Affair (1947) could be referred to as a drama based on one of those love triangles so beloved of storytellers from time immemorial. I’ve seen it spoken of in those terms and while this aspect is not only present but also pivotal in the development of the narrative, I do not believe it represents the core theme of the story. Instead the film is concerned with the late and brief flowering of one character’s manhood, although I think the ending, reportedly added in order to avoid falling foul of the production code, detracts from this to an extent.

It begins with an airplane swooping ominously down from an inky black sky to land at Nairobi, down to earth and down to the unpleasant business of tidying up after a death. The dead man in question is one Francis Macomber (Robert Preston), a wealthy type  who had been on a safari up country in the company of his wife Margot (Joan Bennett) and a hunter Robert Wilson (Gregory Peck). That plane, with its grim cargo of tension and guilt, brings them all back to offer explanations and justifications. As Wilson sits down to complete the necessary official report required for the inquest the story segues into the long flashback sequence which occupies most of the running time. It tells of the meeting between Francis Macomber and Wilson, how the former makes a deal for a hunting trip for himself and his wife. That the relationship of the Macombers is strained to say the least becomes ever more obvious as the trip progresses, and the needling and provocations bubble close to the surface. With Margot making eyes at Wilson and Francis sweating over something other than the heat, the  professional hunter finds himself pressed from all directions. Everything comes to a head over the  stalking and shooting of a lion, a key moment where Macomber shows his true colors to his wife, to his guide and to himself, and the primary color happens to be yellow. It’s the effect of that incident on all concerned, but principally on Macomber himself, that shapes the rest of the tale. Sure the aforementioned triangle gains in significance but the point of it all is the accommodation a man must make with himself, a confrontation of soul and conscience which leads to fulfillment.

The last time  I looked at a Hemingway sourced movie (The Sun Also Rises, which was featured last October) I, as well as others, commented on the nature of that adaptation and how faithful it was to the original novel. The Macomber Affair was taken from the short story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, and the script which came to the screen through the combined efforts of Casey Robinson, Frank Arnold and Seymour Bennett sticks pretty close to what Hemingway put down on paper. There are some changes to the structure, the positioning and duration of the flashback, and a prologue and epilogue which not only frame the narrative but also see a shift in how the Macombers are presented and thus how the theme of the story is presented. By adding the backstory of the ill-starred couple via the coda the movie seeks to flesh out, humanize, explain and perhaps justify the actions of Margot. This allows the story to end on a redemptive, restorative note, with Margot moving towards the realization of a personal truth, and that is something which is certainly in keeping with the spirit of Hemingway in general.

Yet, at the same time, by pushing the character and the story in this direction, the script dilutes much of the meaning that was supposed to come from the earlier epiphany experienced by Francis. That, not just some macho posturing over the conquest of fear, but the author’s characteristic view of life and death, the eternal and inseparable relationship between those states and of the human condition itself, is undermined. Hemingway’s affinity for hunters, sportsmen and matadors suggests one who feels that the living of a life is only really possible not merely by confronting death but by flirting with it and indeed embracing it. This is an uncomfortable philosophy but it can be detected in much of the writer’s work.

And this is what the story is  about; gaining mastery over and the subsequent banishment of fear is there to be sure, but what’s even more important is capturing the spirit of living, a state which can only be achieved by a forthright communion with one’s atavistic fears. Hemingway’s story sees Francis Macomber reach this place and promptly expire, the purpose of his whole existence therefore fulfilled. This happens in the movie too of course, but the light  in which the character is subsequently cast in order to facilitate the redemptive epilogue is shaded much darker. One could argue that this adds complexity but I remain unsure about that – is the end result muddle rather than complexity? I cannot decide just now but another viewing somewhere down the road may clarify the matter in my mind.

Zoltan Korda’s full list of credits as director isn’t extensive, and the number of movies he made in Hollywood only runs to a half a dozen or so, with The Macomber Affair coming towards the end of that period.  It benefits from its origin as a short story and the pace is correspondingly brisk, with a smooth blend of exterior shooting (Mexico standing in for the African locations) and indoor studio work. The last piece posted on this site featured a score by Miklós Rózsa and his work on The Macomber Affair is another characteristically evocative example, complementing the tense passions which are played out on screen.

Gregory Peck is said to have been very enthusiastic about this project and it’s fair to say his work on it reflects that. I’ve heard criticism of his supposed lack of expressiveness in the past but I feel that’s often used as an artificial stick to beat those actors who tended towards restrained and internalized performances. That’s how I’m inclined to see Peck, and his low key approach is a good fit for this introspective Hemingway character. Joan Bennett could do little wrong in the 1940s as far as I’m concerned, her films with Fritz Lang being highlights. I’ve mentioned the course of her character’s development above and its effect on the tone of the picture, and I think it lends a slightly uneven quality to her performance too. That’s not to say she does anything much  wrong but the femme fatale aspects of the part, and they are strong in the text, are both watered down and rendered vaguely confusing due to the needs imposed by the ultimate resolution. It still works, but the writing makes it harder. Finally, Robert Preston, whose long and hugely varied career stands as a testament to his versatility, is fine as the hollow man at the center of the story, starting out as (to borrow from Raymond Chandler) what might be referred to as a juvenile at the art of living, getting across the essential brittleness that accompanies his emptiness before visibly growing into full manhood for the duration of his short happy life.

To the best of my knowledge, The Macomber Affair has not been given an official release anywhere to date. This is a situation I can only hope is rectified sooner rather than later. Yes, I have some reservations about the script choices but the positives clearly override those. All told, this is a very good film which continues to be undeservedly neglected.

A Double Life

Hollywood’s penchant for picking away at the veneer of its own glamorous facade to steal a furtive glance at the preening, grasping and backstabbing that lies beneath has been noted before. It tends to be fascinating, to this viewer at least, to watch people indulge in this type of cathartic soul-baring. A Double Life (1947) offers a variation on this theme, inviting us not only backstage on Broadway to peer behind the greasepaint of the performers, but drawing us deep into the soul and psyche of that master of duality, the actor. And in this case, it’s a journey into darkness indeed.

How does one go about describing a man, catching the essence of the person concisely? There are people who seem to be the epitome of simplicity itself, engendering responses from those around them to the effect that he’s a great guy, or perhaps not such a great guy. Sometimes there is a general consensus on this point. Then again, many a man is a much more complex proposition, a walking cocktail of positive and negative characteristics where the question of whether or not he’s a right guy is wholly dependent  on the opinions and experiences of the person one happens to ask. Anthony John (Ronald Colman) is an actor and is also an example of the complexity I referred to. The sense of the dual nature of man is apparent right from the beginning in both visual and narrative terms. He is first presented in the lobby of the theater where his latest successful play is running and he is caught in a brief pose in front of a portrait of himself, looking over his own shoulder in a sense, and this is then reinforced as he strolls through the city on his way to see his agent, provoking varying reactions from the individuals he encounters, some of whom sing his praises while others are somewhat less flattering.

He is about to be offered the role of Othello, one he has shied away from in the past but the allure is to prove too powerful to resist on this occasion. His ex-wife Brita (Signe Hasso) is to play the part of Desdemona, and all of this prompts hesitation and trepidation. This legally estranged couple remain close, Anthony is still in love and Brita, though more cautious and reluctant to expose herself to hurt, clearly retains feelings too. Obviously, there is the potential for two people working together under such circumstances to get swept along, or even carried away, by their passions. Initially, Anthony busies himself with rehearsals and a casual fling with a smitten waitress (Shelley Winters) but as the success of the production grows and the run is extended he  finds himself drawn more and more to Brita. All well and good, but the fact is this man is known to be an actor who throws himself body and soul into his characters and that’s not good news when he starts to suspect Brita of being in love with press agent Bill Friend (Edmond O’Brien). Slowly, he finds himself identifying more and more with the murderous jealousy of the man he has been portraying night after night on stage.

Frankly, I don’t readily associate George Cukor with films noir, although he did make a few movies which to a greater or lesser extent drifted in that direction, such as A Woman’s Face, Keeper of the Flame and Gaslight. However, A Double Life heads determinedly down those half-lit byways of the human psyche, aided enormously by the rich, shadow-laden cinematography of Milton Krasner. While there is no shortage of talent among the principal players the quality of those behind the camera is every bit as impressive and the presence of such depth and experience adds immeasurably to the finished picture. Besides Cukor and Krasner, the writing of Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, the lush scoring of Miklós Rózsa, and the editing of future director Robert Parrish all contribute to what is an undoubtedly classy production.

Ronald Colman won the Best Actor Oscar, as well as a Golden Globe, for his work in A Double Life, which I feel was well deserved. It’s a complex and challenging role, and it’s to Colman’s great credit that he embraces its inherent melodrama and plays it with resolute conviction and the type of sensitivity that is vital in retaining the sympathy of the viewer. After all, he is breathing life into a character who in less capable hands could so easily alienate the audience. I’m reminded of something I once read by the critic Ian Cameron in relation to the viewer’s identification or sympathy with noir protagonists. As I recall, he spoke about both the comfort and discomfort this can provoke in the audience. We get drawn in by those characters for whom we can feel some affinity, those whose positive qualities are clear to see and are more than simply cardboard heroes or villains. Still, when they are at best ambiguous or at worst outright criminals then there is an undeniable sense of discomfort on our part too; we don’t really want to find ourselves sympathizing or identifying with such types, and when we have been manipulated into that position the duality that characterizes the better, or more nuanced, films noir becomes apparent. As viewers, our comfort and discomfort (and perhaps the ethical no man’s land in between) is a reflection of the movies’ blending of light and dark, of its frequent sallies into the murky grey areas of moral ambivalence.

A Double Life has a tight core cast with Colman obviously remaining the focal point of it all. Signe Hasso gets across the conflicted feelings of her character effectively and brings the audience along with her. Her continued love for he ex is apparent as are the reservations she has about allowing those now dormant emotions to be awakened. The delicate balance of such contrasting desires can be tricky to convey successfully but Hasso remains convincing throughout, this emotional tightrope walk as well as her portrayal of Desdemona in the drama within the onscreen drama acting as another example of the ever present theme of duality.

Shelley Winters turns in another solid performance as the earthy and ultimately tragic waitress. It’s not a big part in terms of screen time but it is pivotal and Winters handles it well. I know that in the past I wasn’t so taken with her work but with some recent viewings I find I’m increasingly impressed. Edmond O’Brien makes yet another appearance in yet another noir. He is good enough here, but it has to be said the part doesn’t offer him as much as some others he was doing around this time. Still, what he does is fine and his presence is always welcome.

A Double Life has been given a Blu-ray release in the US by Olive, but I’ve been making do with my old DVD so far. This is a beautifully shot movie that oozes the noir visual aesthetic while the tragic conflict at the heart of the story anchors it firmly in the choppy waters of dark melodrama. This is a very polished production and one which I find repays repeated viewings.

Valerie

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Restless and the Damned

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well worth catching IMO.

 

Gordon Gates

Some Came Running

Some Came Running (1958) is quite simply a great movie. It’s a study of fear and frustration in small town America in the post-war years. Every main character is scared or insecure in one way or another, scared and insecure within themselves, wary and mistrustful of their strengths and weaknesses, and frequently unaware of or unclear about the difference.  Essentially, everybody we encounter wants what he or she cannot have, all except one. That one person appears to be the greatest dreamer of the lot, and yet it’s the purity of that dream that means it stands more chance of being realized than all the other castles in the sky combined.

Homecomings ought to be happy affairs, a chance to strengthen bonds and reacquaint oneself with family and friends, but as Elmer Bernstein’s frantic and vaguely discordant score plays over the credits, there’s no suggestion of joy ahead. We’re riding a bus, and the view through the windows is of countryside dipping and rolling down towards the town of Parkman, Indiana. There’s a touch of symbolism in that shot, the physical descent mirrors the spiritual one the protagonist is on, the process of stepping down from his emotionally and intellectually detached position to confront and reconnect with his past (indeed with himself) before he earns the right to ascend once more. It’s a practically deserted bus too and you get the impression that Parkman isn’t the kind of town people are in a hurry to reach, quite the opposite in fact. Slumped by the window and sleeping off what must have been a heavy night is Dave Hirsh (Frank Sinatra), a demobbed soldier back in his home town for no better reason than the fact his friends told the driver to drop him there. The only other passenger is Ginny (Shirley MacLaine), a “hostess” from Chicago who has followed Dave. While others naturally impact on the development of the story, it is these two who form the dramatic axis at the heart of the tale. He’s what might be described as a lapsed writer, a man who has lost his spark somewhere along the line and has traded his talent for a sour mix of whiskey and cynicism. And yet he hasn’t completely resigned himself to idle contemplation of the shot glass, as evidenced by the fact he still carries around his last manuscript, one he appears to regard with fond dissatisfaction.

Dave Hirsh is the man through whose eyes we follow the majority of events, watching his struggle with his art, with his friends and relations, and of course with himself. While he acts as our point of reference, it’s through his interaction with Ginny above all that we gain the broader perspective that adds depth. The growth and development of the character of Dave is propelled mainly by the presence and actions of Ginny, even if she is not always aware of the pivotal position she occupies.

“I don’t understand you neither, but that don’t mean I don’t like you. I love you! But I don’t understand you. Now what’s the matter with that?”

When we first encounter him, he is quite literally in a dark place, deflated, directionless and drunk. By the end of the movie, while there’s grief and sorrow on show, he’s returned to the light by having rediscovered everything that matters – he has recaptured his spirit, and that is reflected both in his renewed awareness of his artistic worth and his  recovered self-esteem as a human being who now understands he is capable and deserving of love.

What then of Ginny? Well, if Dave’s moment of truth, the bittersweet dawning of realization, comes late in proceedings, much of the impetus has derived from the presence of Ginny. Dave has spent an inordinate amount of time kidding himself that his salvation lies with the bookish and frigid Gwen (Martha Hyer). However, this is an illusion fed by his desire to escape the carefully constructed edifice of hypocrisy as represented by his brother Frank (Arthur Kennedy) and the grand soulless house he inhabits with his disaffected wife (Leora Dana) on the one hand, and the creative wasteland he’s found himself wandering through for years on the other. Gwen is incapable of loving anyone or anything real, at least in a physical sense. She resides in a house steeped in learning, a place where culture is a staple to the point that books proliferate and are to be found even in the kitchen, offering sustenance to the mind. Yet Gwen worships a kind of chaste and empty conception of art, one where the artist is a detached and essentially impotent figure, rendering art itself barren in the process. Juxtaposed with the emotional vacuum presented by Gwen is the simple, inarticulate tenderness of Ginny, the type of honesty that defines humility, and therefore selfless love. There’s a pathetically beautiful scene played out in an empty classroom just before the movie’s climax, that lays bare the contrasting characters of the two women – Gwen buttoned into her suffocating propriety, with just a hint of spite peeking out, while Ginny is a gushing mess of devotion and rouge. It is hard to imagine anyone essaying the vulnerability, warmth and utter lack of pretension or guile more successfully than Shirley MacLaine.

This shopworn ingenue who displays more nobility and emotional candor than anyone else is portrayed as a semi-comic figure throughout, with her ever present fur piece struggling to achieve some uneasy sophistication alongside the hopelessly immature handbag. Then right at the end, the mask is reversed to become the embodiment of tragedy. It seems fitting that this plays out as a Technicolor (Metrocolor, for the sake of accuracy) symphony, showcasing the intense and hypnotic use of color by Minnelli. In fact this sequence is shot, as indeed are a number of key passages, like a cinematic ballet; figures drift from light into darkness according to the ebb and flow of emotion, alternately cloaked in shadow and bathed in rich, vibrant hues, dancing around the flame of Minnelli’s camera.

If aspects of the movie are visually (by the way, cinematographer  William H Daniels’ contribution should not be underestimated) and rhythmically reminiscent of a musical, this is perhaps to be expected given the involvement of Minnelli, Sinatra and Dean Martin. Sinatra was at the height of his powers at this stage; he had a series of strong performances in some fine movies behind him – his screen work beginning with another James Jones adaptation From Here to Eternity and continuing up to the underrated A Hole in the Head for Capra constitutes a remarkable run – and his recordings for Capitol during these years are just sublime.

There is a lifetime of full-blooded living coloring Sinatra’s performance as Dave Hirsh and it feels as though this inspired those around him to travel that extra mile too. Dean Martin could be a lazy actor, falling back on that easygoing charm and his drawling drunkard shtick all too readily. Sure there is some of that in his Bama Dillert, but he brings a shading to the role that elevates it. He’s every bit as much a victim of the insecurity which runs rampant among the characters as anyone else – after all, isn’t the gambler, with his affectedly casual love affair with lady luck, the very epitome of uncertainty? What stands out most of course are the stubbornness and loyalty (two traits which aren’t all that far removed when you think about it) which define him. His pig-headed refusal to consider any change to his behavior, even when faced with the loss of a friendship and the threat to his health and life, feels credible in his hands. And the hat business is treated almost as a running gag, right up to the last shot of the movie, where it suddenly transforms into something deeply touching.

Like MacLaine and Hyer, Arthur Kennedy was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the movie – none of them won but it has to be said there was pretty stiff competition that year. Recently, I looked at Impulse, a relatively obscure British thriller, from a few years earlier and which saw Kennedy falling prey to middle-aged dissatisfaction. The part of Frank Hirsh offered the opportunity for further exploration of that theme. It’s a strong piece of work in truth, the calculating suspicion he feels at the beginning is slathered over inexpertly with fake bonhomie and unctuousness, none of which stands much chance of deceiving anyone for long. That dust dry laugh and back-slapping hospitality is just as much of a front as the image of familial harmony he works so hard to project. Yet, when it all comes crashing down in the aftermath of an ill-advised evening with Nancy Gates, there’s a sense of wistfulness about the whole affair. It is to Minnelli’s and the film’s credit that neither Gates nor Kennedy are explicitly judged or condemned; that mature generosity of spirit is admirable.

Warner Brothers released Some Came Running years ago in a box set of Sinatra movies. The CinemaScope image looks fine, and there’s a 20 minute feature on the movie as a supplement. Still, I have to wonder why a film of this quality hasn’t yet made it to Blu-ray since Minnelli’s mise-en-scène and use of color and shadow would surely look spectacular in high definition. Hopefully, this omission will be addressed sooner or later. The movie itself remains a great favorite of mine, and has been ever since I first viewed it many years ago. So, let me just end as I began by stating that this is simply a great piece of cinema, and I recommend it without reservation.

Moonfleet

Recognizing the familiar in the atypical; that sounds like the kind of triumphant banality commonly attached to a piece of cod sociological theorizing. In fact, it’s just my own clumsy way of pointing out how even the apparently uncharacteristic works of great filmmakers are frequently nothing of the sort. When one has in mind Fritz Lang’s time in Hollywood it’s tempting to think of film noir and leave it at that. However, that would be not only a mistake but a disservice to a man whose mastery of cinema meant that genre labels represented no limit, but instead offered extended opportunities to tackle the themes which interested him. Moonfleet (1955), despite its smugglers and 18th century trappings, is recognizably a Lang film and features elements that crop up all through his  work.

Young John Mohune (Jon Whiteley) is an orphan, on his way to the village of Moonfleet on the Dorset coast to look up the man his mother told him to find after she had passed. With a lowering sky and a deserted road, the atmosphere is already vaguely threatening and a tumbledown churchyard watched over by a stone angel heighten that feeling. When a claw-like hand is suddenly thrust from below the ground, well we’re veering into the realms of a Gothic nightmare. That sense is hardly dispelled when the youngster awakens in a local tavern to see a gallery of grotesques gazing down on him. Nevertheless,  he’s a phlegmatic type and unfazed by the experience, which is just as well as he’s about to witness a flogging and a shooting, carried out by the man he’s been traveling to see. Jeremy Fox (Stewart Granger) is an ambiguous character, a man of some means but clearly a rogue too. It’s apparent that Fox and the boy’s mother had been close but it’s also plain that he’s reluctant to have responsibility for the child’s welfare thrust upon him. The lad is a determined sort though, neither intimidated by the violence all around nor the dissipated and bawdy company his new guardian regularly keeps. As the trappings of a horror movie ebb and flow like the tide itself, the adventurous elements of the story gradually dominate, with the prospect of lost treasure being recovered, and all the romance that promises. While the characters hunt for a fabulous diamond, the fact is both Fox and young Mohune are mining for a different kind of treasure, the former slowly coming to the realization that he might just have a chance of regaining some semblance of the honor he’d thought forfeit and the latter, well his treasure is the boundless optimism of youth and a simple faith in the the notion of friendship.

A colorful CinemaScope adventure with swashbuckling elements is unlikely to be the first mental image conjured up with the mention of a Fritz Lang film. Nevertheless, as I said above, Lang wasn’t a servant of any particular genre. He even made a number of westerns – Western Union, The Return of Frank James, Rancho Notorious – with varying degrees of success and all of those were at the very least interesting and bore signs of the director’s stamp. His films frequently deal with concepts of justice, of an uneasy relationship between morality and hypocrisy, where ambiguity resides on the periphery of society and the facade of respectability is ever at risk of slipping and revealing something altogether less savory underneath. Moonfleet weaves all of this into the fabric of its narrative and the heavy reliance on sets and the studio backlot suit the director better; with Robert Planck’s cinematography casting brooding shadows, Lang creates some wonderfully atmospheric tableaux in the church, the cemetery and the crypt below, where the monuments to the past watch impassively over the  intrigues of the present, all punctuated by the rich score of Miklos Rozsa.

Moonfleet is a movie with what I would term a deep cast, meaning there is an abundance of well known and instantly recognizable performers right down the list. Despite that, the focus remains firmly on Stewart Granger and Jon Whiteley at all times. Granger had a real flair for playing characters who had a dismal opinion of themselves, if not outright villains then heroes (or perhaps even anti-heroes) burdened with doubt and locked into a lifetime of regret. His Jeremy Fox quite literally carries the scars of a thwarted love, and there is the sense of some distant guilt hanging heavy on his conscience. His courtship of villainy and vice feels more like a self-imposed punishment than an indulgence. His potential redeemer comes in the form of Whiteley, who it is strongly hinted but never explicitly confirmed may be his own son. It’s not so much the innocent adoration but perhaps more the steadfast belief of the boy that imbues the man with the moral courage he thought he had squandered. There is something both moving and uplifting about the coda that brings the movie to a close, where Whiteley throws open the gate to his ancestral home, opening up the path to a better future and asserting in response to the doubts cast by the parson whether his guardian will ever return, not with boldness but with a simplicity borne of conviction: “He’s my friend.”

As for the rest of the cast, the majority play types of varying degrees of worthlessness. George Sanders could take on the part of a cad  with his eyes closed, his debauched and decaying aristocrat, purring with honeyed ennui plots and schemes in vain. His faithless wife is portrayed in her trademark slinky style by Joan Greenwood, a woman who will be forever associated with the role of Sibella in Kind Hearts and Coronets in this viewer’s mind. The striking Viveca Lindfors is a venomous blend of the pitiful and the malignant as Fox’s spurned mistress, beautifully framed with a serpent as companion in the image above, although I feel she’s underused. To some extent, the same could said of Melville Cooper, John Hoyt, Dan Seymour, Jack Elam and, in his final screen role, the unforgettable Skelton Knaggs.  Sean McClory fares better as the dissatisfied innkeeper/smuggler and gets to shine in one of the movie’s big set pieces – the face-off with Granger, where he swings a cruel looking halberd, must have been something to behold projected on the big screen.

Moonfleet has been released on Blu-ray by Warner Brothers but, for now at least, I’m still reliant on my old French DVD. It’s been a while since I last watched anything by Lang, which is odd as he has always been one of my favorite directors, and I’ve had it in mind to feature this title for some time. I believe it hasn’t the greatest reputation among Lang’s works but I like it a lot. It has mood and atmosphere, chills and adventure sharing screen space with tried and tested themes of the director, and what’s even more  important, there’s a positivity and buoyancy at its core that I cannot fail but respond to.

Blowing Wild

“You’ll never get away from me. I’ll never let you go. I’ll say you helped me. I’ll say I killed him and you helped me. I don’t care if they hang me just so they hang you, too!”

That sample of dialogue comes near the end of Blowing Wild (1953), during the climax and just before a no holds barred shootout. It is pure unashamed melodrama, as indeed is the entire movie. It came up in the comments section of a piece I wrote back last autumn and provoked the expression of a number of markedly contrasting opinions. At that point, I hadn’t seen the movie but my fondness for the stars and director not to mention the polarized views it prompted meant I was going to have to do something about that. It took a bit of time for me to get around to it (why break the habit of a lifetime, I suppose) but I have to say I’m delighted that I did – I had a wonderful time with it. Sure, as I said, the melodramatic aspects are dialed up as far as they can go and the emotions on display are raw and unrestrained. And I think that’s precisely what I liked about it, the fact that the director and cast wholeheartedly embrace the burning passions it depicts.

The credits roll to the accompaniment of Dimitri Tiomkin and Frankie Laine’s soaring and swooping theme song and the camera tracks the progress of a group of heavily armed bandits picking their way through locations that film fans will recognize from countless westerns, from Garden of Evil through The Wild Bunch. The screen caption tells us it’s “South America” but we know it’s Mexico. Jeff Dawson (Gary Cooper) and his partner Dutch Peterson (Ward Bond) are wildcatting, drilling for oil and about to lose their shirts. The fact is they are lucky not to lose more as those bandits led by El Gavilan (Juan Garcia), channeling Alfonso Bedoya in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, demand payment of the money the two oilmen don’t have before laying waste to the derrick and campsite. Our two hapless prospectors find themselves suddenly destitute and desperate to find some means of buying their fare back to the States, desperate enough to agree to haul a load of nitroglycerine back through the badlands they just vacated. When payment for this is withheld by Ian MacDonald’s smooth chancer – shades of To Have and Have Not creeping in here – the only way out seems to be taking a job with an old friend. Now why would anyone be reluctant, no make that downright hostile, to accept an offer from a friend? Well, that friend is Paco (Anthony Quinn) and the problem really relates to his wife Marina (Barbara Stanwyck). We first encounter her primping and sneering like a cat in heat in an already smouldering atmosphere, and it’s apparent to all, except the smitten Paco, that she and Jeff have what might be delicately referred to as a past. I’ll leave it at that for now; I reckon most people reading this can guess where the story is headed, and the real pleasure to be had is observing the emotional temperature get ratcheted up remorselessly.

While I have not seen all of Hugo Fregonese’s films – to be honest, I’ve really only seen a fraction of his output – I can confidently say that I’ve yet to meet one I didn’t like, and some of them are quite wonderful. Saddle Tramp is very good while Apache Drums, The Raid, and Harry Black and the Tiger are all excellent. Blowing Wild is all about love, loyalty, passion and betrayal, and every one of those elements is given an extensive workout in Philip Yordan’s script. Some will say it’s overdone, that the seasoning is too rich and the blend is too heavy. I have to disagree though. When I think of passion I think of the Greek πάθος, from which it is derived, and all the full-bodied and full-blooded longing and suffering it implies. One cannot portray something so primal and powerful with subtlety or delicacy, it needs to be given full rein, and Fregonese’s movie certainly does just that.

As for the casting, Cooper looks worn and a little beat up as he so often did in the 50s, but it’s a good look for him, complementing that characteristic halting delivery of his and making him seem a little more human. His Jeff Dawson is a stoic creation, a solid man of principal with most of the edges smoothed down by the hard experience of just living, yet still vital and still hungry. Whether his hunger relates to the black gold he’s drilling for or the two women vying for his attention is eventually resolved, but not before all have had a chance to flirt with him. The focus is mainly on Stanwyck, a woman who looks as though she’s got what she wanted, but it’s clear enough that this is only what she thought she wanted. Her realization that she has actually succeeded only in deceiving herself lies at the heart of her obsessive pursuit of Cooper. Love has become twisted into fixation and all the destructiveness that follows in its wake. The age of these two works in their favor as well, in my view anyway. Cooper was in his early 50s, but looking older, and Stanwyck in her mid-40s when Blowing Wild was made. To me, this lends a touch of urgency that would be missing had a younger pair been cast in these roles, and it amounts to an added layer to appreciate.

Ruth Roman seems to have been a bit short-changed in her part. It’s a key role and one that you would expect to offer more, but her character is ill-defined and frequently sidelined. This isn’t a criticism of Roman, who plays the part well, but the way her character is written. Anthony Quinn is as large as ever; it’s a typical performance in some respects with all the bravado and heart you tend to associate with the man, but touchingly and admirably vulnerable too. When Paco acknowledges his own fears and powerlessness (are we to read into that some allusion to a different type of impotence?) we are treated to one of those moments of honesty that are always welcome. Ward Bond’s sympathetic sidekick is fine too but the second half of the movie sees him off screen for long stretches as he recuperates in hospital from a gunshot wound.

As for availability, Blowing Wild was released  some years ago by Olive Films and the picture quality is very strong, crisp and clean with only one very brief sequence early on looking a bit rough. I don’t believe the film is that well thought of and it probably has more detractors than supporters. However, I’m happy to place myself in the latter category and I certainly recommend it to those who enjoy their melodrama bold and brazen. With that, I’ll sign off and leave you with Frankie Laine’s rendering of the theme song:

A Left and a Right

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

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

First up is Golden Gloves from 1940

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gordon Gates

Quantez

Men ride longer over blood than money.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Autumn Leaves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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