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.

Five Card Stud

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On a number of occasions this blog has cast a critical eye over that curious phenomenon that is the 60s western, and how it behaved as the decade wore on. Challenged from within and without, internationally by the Spaghettis and other Euro varieties, and nationally by a society in flux as well as the continued pressure from the small screen, the genre was not only threshing around in search of direction it was also seeking to redefine its very identity. While figures like Peckinpah and Hellman were exploring more radical avenues of development, others like A C Lyles’ production unit were trying (unsuccessfully, to my mind) to tap into the nostalgia market. Antone familiar with the western will attest to its malleable quality, its almost unique ability to adapt itself to changing tastes and situations and both absorb and reflect new ideas or themes. This can only come about through experimentation and although I’ve mentioned two diverging paths being followed at the time that left a center ground where other options could be explored. And it’s in that area we find a movie like Five Card Stud (1968), something of a hybrid beast where the trappings and attitudes of the western are blended with the plotting of the classic mystery. Does it work? Well, let’s see…

The title alludes to poker and so the film opens with a game of cards, and one of those tropes so common to the western – an allegation of cheating and the hot-headed response that typically prompts. While professional gambler Van Morgan (Dean Martin) is away from the table trouble erupts and a stranger is accused of being a card sharp. Spurred by the vicious and vindictive Nick Evers (Roddy McDowall), the other players determine to lynch the cheat. Morgan is appalled by this overreaction and sets off in pursuit, hoping to avert a tragedy. However, his protestations are ignored and he’s casually clubbed down before the vigilantes mete out their punishment. Morgan decides this shocking event signals as good a time as any to move on and see how the tables are playing elsewhere. When word reaches him of the sudden and violently gruesome deaths of two of the men involved in the hanging he finds himself drawn back. In his absence, a gold strike has attracted miners and also a new preacher, Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum, but main point of interest remains the apparent determination of someone to ensure that a form of rough justice is served, and to that end those present at that fateful card game and its aftermath are being relentlessly picked off.

Revenge, retribution or a reckoning are often found at or near the heart of the western. Of course we’re usually aware of who is the instrument, the man (or woman) with his finger on the trigger. If Five Card Stud can’t quite be said to subvert this, it does at least play with it a little by bringing Christie to the frontier and inviting the audience to see if they could figure out who among the suspects and potential victims was the guilty party before there were, in fact, none. So, as I asked above – does it work? I guess the fair answer to that is to say it’s a partial success. The mystery of who is doing the killing isn’t that hard to work out in itself and while it contains something of a twist that is arguably revealed a bit too soon. As a straight western, as a whodunit, as a piece of cinema from Henry Hathaway, Five Card Stud remains essentially unremarkable. Yet I do feel it’s one of those cases where the eventual sum is actually greater than its components – the finished film is quite entertaining, almost in spite of itself. It is by no means a great western, it is not a great mystery, and it is not a great Henry Hathaway film. For all that, it adds up to a rather enjoyable mystery western directed by Hathaway.

Last time I posted here I commented on some slightly unconventional casting in westerns. And by complete coincidence I find myself continuing in a similar vein here. Roddy McDowall was an actor I always liked, he came across as a very likeable guy throughout his long career in film and television, and could generally be relied on to deliver a good performance. But he never struck me as a natural for westerns; even though he did make a handful of them he had that refined, urbane air that felt at odds with the usual frontier drama. The fact is he does cut an incongruous figure when he first appears yet, though he never completely loses this, he does grow into his role as the movie proceeds.

On the other hand, the two leads were comfortable genre fits. Mitchum, in a part that feels almost like a parody of his memorable work in The Night of the Hunter, eases his way through a setting he knew like the back of his hand. Dean Martin came to serious westerns (yes, I know he’d already spoofed the genre a few years before with Jerry Lewis) with Rio Bravo and clearly took to it. He’s arguably too relaxed in Five Card Stud but that’s no bad thing with a “big” persona like Mitchum present. In support there is strong work from Yaphet Kotto as well as smaller parts for  the likes of Denver Pyle,  Whit Bissell, Ted de Corsia and John Anderson. The female roles, it has to be said, are pretty weak and less than memorable, especially the part (one of her last as it happens) handed to the tragic Inger Stevens.

Five Card Stud was put out on DVD many years ago by Paramount and the transfer looks a bit aged now. The film is presented 16:9 and looks reasonably clean but it also appears quite faded and insipid in places. While it could stand an upgrade, I’m not sure how much of a market there is for it and therefore whether the expense would be justified. This is another of those 60s westerns which doesn’t fully satisfy – still, it avoids the pessimism that was a significant flaw in some of its contemporaries and at least has the confidence to try something different. There’s enough in the casting and plotting to hold the attention of both western and mystery fans but it’s unlikely to win any converts. As such, I think it just about earns itself a qualified recommendation.

 

 

Rough Night in Jericho

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My last post looked at a superior little film scripted by Sydney Boehm, and that writer is the common thread linking into this one. Where The Raid was rich and fairly original in terms of theme, Rough Night in Jericho (1967) is an altogether simpler and, ultimately, less rewarding experience. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie, just that the plot treads a more worn path and the characterization has less depth and complexity. Generally, it’s a picture with lower ambitions, aiming for entertainment as opposed to any notions of profundity. What is does have in its favour are unusual casting, some instances of striking photography, and a couple of first class set pieces.

The tale told here is a familiar one: a town which, through weakness, has allowed itself to succumb gradually to the tyranny of one man. The town is Jericho and the man is Alex Flood (Dean Martin), a former lawman who has come to realize that there’s a better percentage (51% to be precise) to be had in simply ruling the roost. Bit by bit, Flood has acquired a controlling interest in just about every enterprise of value in the town. The one business he has yet to muscle in on is the stage line run by Molly Lang (Jean Simmons), twice widowed and Flood’s former lover. Working on the principle of fighting fire with fire, Molly has taken on a couple of partners she hopes will prove capable of facing down Flood. These men are Ben Hickman (John McIntire) and Dolan (George Peppard), two ex-peacekeepers who also want to try and turn a profit. The movie opens with Flood ambushing the new stagecoach driven by his would-be rivals, and establishes the confrontational tone that runs throughout. When the two men limp into town the first view to greet them is a graphic illustration of Flood’s handiwork – the corpse of a man who crossed him strung up from the hanging tree. With Hickman laid up in bed in Molly’s house recuperating from a gunshot wound sustained in the ambush, Dolan is essentially on his own. He’s a gambler, a man who always does the arithmetic in his head before acting, and he dislikes the odds stacked against him. While he neither likes nor approves of Flood and his tactics, he can’t see that anything’s to be gained in taking him on. The first half of the film basically involves these two natural rivals circling each other warily without either one of them wanting to overtly provoke the other. The scales are finally tipped by two factors: Dolan’s inability to crack the stubborn resolve of his aging partner, and a crude assault on Molly by Flood’s henchmen. When the gauntlet is thrown down, Dolan is bound to a path than can only lead relentlessly to a final showdown with Flood.

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Director Arnold Laven’s television credits far exceed his movie work, and I think that background is highlighted in certain aspects of Rough Night in Jericho. A large proportion of the action takes place within the confines of the town – particularly Molly’s home and Flood’s saloon – where both the filming and editing have a TV vibe about them. Whenever the characters venture out into the wilderness around Jericho there’s a far more cinematic atmosphere about it all, probably due to Russell Metty’s presence behind the camera. For the most part, Laven’s work on this picture is competent if not spectacular, though the final stalking scene in the brush is both overextended and clumsy in its editing. There are, however, two memorable sequences that raise the quality considerably. The first is a long, brutal fight between George Peppard and Slim Pickens with the weapons of choice ranging from a bullwhip to chains. Even now the scene carries some clout, and I can only wonder how audiences back in 1967 reacted to the savagery on display. The other notable scene comes towards the end when an exciting and well-staged shootout takes place in the saloon, John McIntire’s shotgun creating some particularly satisfying mayhem.

And now to the casting. Dean Martin is never going to lauded as a great actor, but his easy-going charm and natural affability meant he was never an unwelcome addition to any production. His portrayal of Alex Flood turns all expectations completely on their head though. Nearly all traces of the usual Dino persona are washed away as he plays Flood as a man without a shred of common decency. His actions right from the beginning – humiliating a deputy, orchestrating a lynching, sadistically beating a woman, back-shooting –  prove there can be no doubt as to his ruthlessness. While it’s certainly a shock to see him in such an unsympathetic role I think he just about carries it off. George Peppard is also effective as the reluctant hero up against Flood and his hired killers, his mostly sombre clothes and cheroot hinting at a reference to Leone and Corbucci. John McIntire was always a reliable presence in movies, especially westerns, and his cool professionalism acts as a stabilising force here. English actress Jean Simmons had already demonstrated her ability to slot comfortably into the world of the old west with her role in The Big Country, and does so again in this film. Her tough widow is the only significant female part amid all the macho posturing and she’s perfectly credible as a frontier survivor. It has to be said though that she – along with Peppard – is involved in one of the least successful scenes in the whole movie. It’s a comic interlude that sees Molly and Dolan matching one another drink for drink before collapsing into bed. The scene isn’t especially badly played or filmed, but it’s tone is completely at odds with the rest of the picture and it draws attention to itself for all the wrong reasons.

The German DVD of Rough Night in Jericho by Koch Media has the film looking wonderful in anamorphic scope. Colour and detail levels appeared acceptably high to my eyes, and I wasn’t aware of any significant print damage. The disc offers either the original English soundtrack or a German dub – there are no subtitles to worry about. Extras consist of the trailer, a gallery and an inlay card with notes in German. At this point, I ought to mention that the film is due to go in sale in the UK at the end of this month via Pegasus. If the transfer is up to the standard of the company’s other recent Universal releases then it should represent a viable (and more economical) alternative. This is a film whose plot offers nothing new or startling to western fans, who will have seen countless variations on the tale. Nevertheless, there’s a good deal of entertainment to be had along the way, and the cast all do a perfectly satisfactory job. It’s a solid and unpretentious late-60s western whose strengths and weaknesses just about balance each other out.

Rio Bravo

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“A game-legged old man and a drunk. Is that all you got?”

“That’s what I’ve got.”

 

When Sheriff John T Chance (John Wayne) hands that laconic reply to the question from his friend Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond), it more or less sums up what the whole film is trying to say. Anybody who has ever seen a few Howard Hawks movies will know just how much store he set by the idea of professionalism. The small group of self-contained professionals is a recurrent theme in his work, and Rio Bravo may be the best example of this.

I won’t go into the plot in great detail here since it is, frankly, a little thin for a film with a running time creeping up towards two and a half hours. Chance arrests Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for murder and must hold him in the town jail until the Marshal arrives. All the time, the town is under a virtual state of siege from the hired gunmen of Joe’s brother, Nathan (John Russell). Throw in a typically Hawksian romance between Chance and a poker playing drifter called Feathers (Angie Dickinson), and that’s it. However, this is really a character driven movie, and the plot functions mainly to provide the necessary circumstances to allow the characters to interact. It is this interaction that elevates Rio Bravo to the status of one of the great westerns. I’d challenge anyone to sit through this and not feel for these people by the end; more than that, you actually get the sense of coming to know them. Think about Chance’s coolly competent lawman who’s reduced almost to an awkward schoolboy when confronted with a sassy, attractive woman; Dude’s (Dean Martin) drunken deputy who must face down his personal demons if he’s ever to retrieve his self-respect from the whiskey bottle where he left it; and let’s not forget Stumpy (Walter Brennan), the trigger-happy cripple whose cackling and complaining adds so much warmth and humour to it all.

John Wayne gives one of his most relaxed performances in this film and while this has been criticised by some, I think it fits the pace of the piece. The acting is understated and just plain likable from a man whose talents many are quick to criticise and slow to acknowledge. It’s hard to imagine any other actor playing this part with the natural confidence displayed by Wayne. Dean Martin’s Dude remains convincing as the character gradually transforms himself from a pitiful rummy fishing for drink money in spittoons into a man proud enough to enter by the front door once again. When the doubts and temptations assail him and threaten to haul him back into oblivion, you can’t help rooting for him. The great Walter Brennan has a high time with his role as Stumpy and manages to steal nearly every scene he appears in. The only weak performances come from Angie Dickinson and Ricky Nelson. But if you remember that Dickinson was meant to provide eye candy, Nelson was there to draw in contemporary youth, and that the real focus was on Chance, Dude and Stumpy then it doesn’t seem so important.

While most western directors liked to get out into the wide open spaces, Hawks opted to shoot the entire film within the confines of the town. This has the effect of creating both a claustrophobic tension and a comfortable coziness. In keeping with the theme of professional lawmen, the film itself exudes a slick professional feel. The maturity of Hawks direction can be seen in the first five minutes of the movie, when the status of the main characters and the basis of the plot are presented clearly and explicitly without one word of dialogue being spoken. The script by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett may develop at a leisurely pace, but it’s always logical and it’s packed full of memorable lines. Mention should also be made of the score by Dimitri Tiomkin; it complements the action perfectly and the use of the Deguello is yet another of the joys the film has to offer.

I can’t finish this piece without referring to the fact that Rio Bravo was Howard Hawks’ riposte to High Noon. Hawks took exception to the idea of a lawman running around town desperately seeking help from a scared and apathetic citizenry. This was anathema to a man who worshipped at the altar of the professional ethic. To Hawks, a man ought to play the cards dealt to him regardless of the odds stacked against him. Now I have no interest in discussing the politics, either implicit or explicit, of these two films but I do find myself drawn more often to Rio Bravo. While I like and admire High Noon, it concentrates on the selfish fears of men where Rio Bravo celebrates the camaraderie and warmth of humanity – I know which I find more appealing.

For a long time Rio Bravo was only available on DVD on a bare-bones edition. Last year saw the release of a 2-disc SE with a commentary and lots of special features. Initial reports were that the transfer was significantly darker than the old version and I was wary of the upgrade. However, I eventually decided to take a chance and was pleasantly surprised. The new transfer is darker but then the old one was too washed out and faded anyway. It’s not perfect but I do feel it’s an improvement on the original and I have no regrets whatsoever about purchasing it. Maybe Rio Bravo isn’t the best western ever made but, if not, it’s only a few paces behind. Over the years, I’ve probably viewed this film more than any other and I continue to enjoy it – that’s as good a recommendation as I can offer.