The Iron Curtain

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The 50s saw the red scare, fanned by McCarthyite rhetoric, blaze into life in Hollywood. With the HUAC inspired blacklists casting a dark pall over the movie capital, there was a kind of desperation in the air, a need to prove one’s patriotism and simultaneous rejection of the evils of communism. This meant the decade saw the production of a number of films directly addressing the issue and sending out a message to the witch-hunters that the industry was aware and prepared to play ball. Whatever contemporary reactions may have been, these films, by and large, not only seem lousy when viewed today but they also remind us of all those careers and lives left in tatters by the taint of the blacklist. From a purely artistic standpoint, the ham-fisted presentation of political dogma and the judgemental tone adopted both bog down the narrative and, in the worst cases, leave a very sour taste. However, there are always exceptions, and William Wellman’s The Iron Curtain (1948) is one of the more polished and less hysterical pieces of work from a generally unsavoury interlude in cinema history. I think this is partly due to the skills of Wellman as a filmmaker, and partly as a result of the production taking place right at the beginning of HUAC’s reign of terror, before it’s raging paranoia had fully matured.

In keeping with a lot of Fox movies of the time, the film opens with a declaration that what we’re about to see is a true story, shot on real locations. The cool, authoritative tone of the narrator further enhances the sense that this is something more than mere Hollywood fantasy. I’ve often found that there’s a tiresome quality to some of these earnest eulogies to the dedication and responsibility of various government agencies remaining ever vigilant in the face of multiple threats from without and within. What sets the introduction of The Iron Curtain apart is its location if nothing else. The entire film takes place in Ottawa, Canada, so we are spared yet another hymn to the efficacy of the FBI, Treasury agents or other assorted G Men. Instead, the plot follows the establishment of a Soviet fifth column in Canada during the war and its subsequent dismantling as the big freeze of the Cold War set in. As I said, the movie doesn’t takes us behind the scenes of one of those complex government sting operations that were much favoured by contemporary filmmakers, but concentrates on telling the tale of how one man brought a spy ring to its knees off his own bat. The man in question is Igor Gouzenko (Dana Andrews), a cipher clerk freshly assigned to the Soviet embassy in Canada. The first third of the film goes to great pains to establish how loyal Gouzenko was to his own country and political system, one of those resolute, unthinking servants of the state with clear and direct convictions. As we observe the steadfast Gouzenko going manfully about his duties, we’re also afforded a view into the closed world of the Soviet diplomatic mission. And it’s a drab, forbidding world at that, peopled with stony-faced officials and dripping an atmosphere of suspicion and secrecy. There’s also a glimpse at the careful construction of the spy network, whose eventual unravelling provides the dramatic backdrop for the latter stages of the story. It’s Gouzenko who brings the whole thing crashing down, and his motivation for doing so is a slow realization that he’s serving a flawed master. The catalyst for his decision is the arrival in Canada of his wife Anna (Gene Tierney), and the birth of a son. The presence of this human element greatly strengthens the story and adds to the dramatic tension of the final third. By doing so, the political aspects necessarily take a back seat to the unfolding drama of a family suddenly cast into a perilous situation.

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Even if it’s viewed purely as a propaganda piece, then I think The Iron Curtain is remarkably successful. The reason for that is the script and Wellman’s ability to sidestep the trap of sensationalism and instead adopt a more matter of fact tone, letting the events and their inherent drama speak for themselves. Of course, the air of quiet dread that seems to hang over the scenes in the embassy emphasises the stifling lack of personal and intellectual freedom, but this is quite subtly achieved. The ever-present music from Soviet composers, the inclusion of which in the score apparently caused something of a minor international incident at the time, has the effect of building up the brooding, sinister feel. The only time we take a detour into the realm of direct political preaching is when one of the Soviet residents (Eduard Franz) seals his own fate by getting drunk and lamenting the betrayal of the ideals of the revolution by the apparatchiks who have risen to prominence in Moscow. As a thriller, the film really comes into its own in the final third, as Gouzenko decides to take that leap of faith and defect. Wellman, and cameraman Charles G Clarke, employ classic film noir techniques of lighting and shooting angles to ratchet up the tension during Gouzenko’s theft of incriminating documents from the embassy, and then again in the climactic standoff in his apartment. Another notable aspect of the film is how the government agencies – I’m guessing the Canadian setting facilitated this slight subversion – are conspicuous by their lack of involvement. In fact, there’s initially a downright refusal on the part of the authorities to become involved in what they take to be the ravings of a lunatic.

Dana Andrews was never one of the most emotive or demonstrative of actors, the kind of guy who tended to keep it all inside and bottled up. Such characteristics can unfairly lead to accusations of woodenness when the truth is it’s simply another, and no less effective, style of performing. As it happens, that tight-lipped anxiety that he had a talent for fits the character of Gouzenko to a tee. After all, this is a man who’s been trained to exert self-control in the first place and who then finds himself in a situation where both his own and his family’s survival depends on the maintenance of a facade. Still, Andrews conveyed more than a blank countenance when he had to, the eyes in particular registering the mounting pressure Gouzenko was subjected to. Gene Tierney was making her fourth film alongside Andrews, the most successful being their partnership in Laura a few years earlier, and was good enough in a fairly undemanding role. Her main purpose was to act as a softening and humanizing influence on her previously stiff and determined husband, and that’s how she comes across. However, arguably the most memorable work is produced by the supporting cast. Berry Kroeger was making his screen debut as the shadowy head of Canada’s communists and carries off the part of the principal villain with aplomb. Playing such a Machiavellian puppet master required a good deal of restraint combined with implicit menace. Kroeger was blessed with the features and voice that were ideally suited to this kind of role and he makes a very strong impression. Stefan Schnabel also shines as the head of the NKVD, masking a dangerous ruthlessness with an outwardly reasonable persona. And finally, June Havoc appears as the embassy secretary with a wandering eye and a special brief to vet the reliability of all new staff.

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I think the only DVD edition of The Iron Curtain to date is the one issued in Spain by Fox/Impulso. In terms of picture quality, it’s one of their mid-range efforts. There hasn’t been any restoration work done, as can be seen from the cue blips and so on, but the print used is in generally good condition and doesn’t display noticeable wear. Extras are limited to the usual gallery and text data on the cast and crew. The disc offers English and Spanish soundtracks – the Spanish subtitles are optional and can be deselected via the setup menu. While I certainly don’t think this film represents Wellman at his best, it is an interesting addition to his body of work. The main attraction of The Iron Curtain though lies in its historical significance, coming as it does near the beginning of the red scare. It’s interesting to observe the comparatively restrained approach it takes to its emotive subject matter in contrast to some of the more hyperbolic and offensive offerings that the following decade would eventually produce. Generally, this is worthwhile viewing for fans of Wellman and for providing a snapshot of early Hollywood reactions to the HUAC assault.

 

 

The Secret of Convict Lake

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One of the joys of collecting and watching movies is that, from time to time, you chance upon a little neglected gem. Sure, there are the disappointments too but that’s more than balanced out by the buzz of seeing something previously unknown for the first time and liking it. The Secret of Convict Lake (1951) was a movie I’d never heard of before I acquired it. Anyway, I thought I’d give it a go for a number of reasons: the cast was great, the title was evocative, and the cover looked quite cool. Having seen it now, I have no regrets about this particular purchase and it’s a film I can see myself revisiting. It’s a compact little western with noirish undertones and good performances all round.

Any western involving snow inevitably gets the thumbs up from me, and this one opens with a group of men fighting their way through a white, mountainous landscape. The voiceover informs us that we’re looking at six convicts (soon to be five as one freezes to death) who have broken out of prison and are trying to keep ahead of the pursuing posse. When a blizzard forces the hunters to abandon the chase, the remaining fugitives find themselves on a ridge overlooking a small settlement. After the hellish trek the collection of small dwellings with soft lights spilling from them look very inviting. A quick reconnaissance reveals that the only inhabitants are women, their men having yet to return from prospecting. Right away the conflict at the centre of the picture is before us: a bunch of frozen and half-starved criminals fresh out of prison are confronted with a community of frontier-hardened females who aren’t shy of guns but nor are they without compassion. An uneasy compromise is struck whereby the convicts are to be fed and lodged long enough to allow them to regain enough strength to continue on their way, but they must keep to their assigned quarters. The women are dominated by a trio of well-defined stock characters: Granny (Ethel Barrymore) is the tough old matriarch, Rachel (Ann Dvorak) a spinster who hears the clock ticking louder every day, and Marcia (Gene Tierney) an outsider with a questionable past who’s engaged to Rachel’s brother. The balance of power among the fugitives rests uneasily between Canfield (Glenn Ford) and Greer (Zachary Scott), with the latter counting on the greed of the others to bolster his position. The thing is that Canfield was convicted of robbery and murder, and the $40,000 he is said to have stolen has never been recovered. Greer wants that money badly but Canfield wants something else, the man whose perjury delivered him to the hangman. The rest of the convicts comprise a thug, a bragging Englishman and a mentally unstable young man with a penchant for killing women. Factor in the added complication that the man Canfield’s seeking happens to be Marcia’s betrothed and the situation bristles with explosive potential. The film’s hour and twenty minute running time packs in a powerful mix of sexual tension and the looming threat of violence before coming to a satisfying conclusion.

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The Secret of Convict Lake comes near the mid-point of director Michael Gordon’s career, one derailed by the blacklist. Until then he’d been making B programmers and a few noir pictures, the enforced break would be followed by a move to glossy Ross Hunter/Robert Arthur productions. While this isn’t a straight film noir Gordon’s direction, Leo Tover’s moody photography and Sol Kaplan’s doom laden score all combine to create a darkly atmospheric western. The casting of Ford, Tierney, Scott and perennial heavy Jack Lambert add to the noir feel of proceedings. Glenn Ford was able to play these kinds of uncomfortable outsiders with his eyes closed and Canfield is another in a long line of basically right guys who’ve been screwed over by circumstances. He’s a man who’s been brought face to face with death and has only his quest for justice or vengeance to keep him going. Zachary Scott, on the other hand, is all slime and self interest, prepared to use everyone to get what he wants. His calculating seduction of Ann Dvorak’s frustrated old maid is both creepy and (from her point of view) tragic. Gene Tierney’s natural beauty could never quite mask the demons struggling inside her, but that often worked in her favour on screen. Her Marcia is a similarly troubled soul, a woman with a past she desperately wants to leave behind and who is on the point of marrying a worthless man in order to try to make a fresh start. Canfield’s arrival and his subsequent revelations offer hope and despair in equal measure. Ethel Barrymore gives another variation on her wise old owl turn with a hint of that mischievous eccentricity peeping through – I always appreciate her presence in a movie. A word too for Cyril Cusack, not an actor you expect to see in a western, whose talkative cockney provides Canfield’s ruthless comrades with their most human and sympathetic face.

As far as I’m aware the only release of The Secret of Convict Lake on DVD at the time of writing is the Spanish disc from Fox/Impulso. The film hasn’t had any work done on it but, fortunately, for the most part the image is very strong. There are cue blips and some very minor damage but the elements are generally in good shape leading to a sharp picture with contrast levels that looked fine to me. The downside is that it appears to be interlaced, although I didn’t find that a huge problem to be honest. The mono soundtrack is clear and the Spanish subs are removable by deselecting them via the main menu. Extras are limited to text bios and a gallery. I found the film to be a very entertaining and tightly paced production. There are fine performances all round and, as I mentioned before, a welcome hint of film noir in the script, casting and direction. It’s a strong movie that really ought to be better known, and it gets my approval.

The Return of Frank James

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It is, and always has been, common for a highly successful film to spawn a sequel. In 1939 Fox produced Jesse James and, riding on the wave of the reinvigorated western genre, found themselves with a hit on their hands. Of course, it’s a little difficult to continue a story when you have just killed off your main character. However, Hollywood rarely finds itself at a loss for long and the solution was to pick up the story where the first film left off and concentrate on the surviving brother, Frank James (Henry Fonda). The only problem was that, after Jesse’s death, Frank’s life wasn’t the stuff of dramatic, action-packed blockbusters. Therefore, the truth needed to be manipulated to present audiences with a story of revenge and redemption.

In the aftermath of the ill-fated raid on the Northfield bank Frank James had gone to ground. We find him living under an assumed name and it would seem that he has renounced his outlaw ways. On receiving news of the death of his brother he is content to let the law run its course, believing that Bob and Charlie Ford will be tried and duly hanged for the murder. It is only when he learns that, despite their conviction, the Fords have been granted a full pardon that he decides to take matters into his own hands and straps on his guns again. There follows a pursuit across the country to Colorado as Frank attempts to track down the Fords and mete out the justice he feels the courts have denied him. By the end of the film all the loose ends have been tied up and we get a traditionally happy ending. The problem with this is that the production code of the time dictated that a killer should not be presented as the hero – or at the very least that he should be punished for his deeds. The way around that issue was to present Frank James as an essentially honorable man hounded into infamy by circumstances and big business. So while the Fords get their comeuppance it is not Frank who is shown to kill them (which is historically true at least). In fact, the film is at pains to point out the innocence and decency of our hero throughout – even having one of the characters declare indignantly that Frank James never killed anyone. All of this is vaguely unsatisfactory since a man setting out on a mission of vengeance should, to my mind, be allowed to achieve some measure of it directly.

A grim Frank James (Henry Fonda) watches Bob Ford re-enact the murder of his brother.

As I said, Henry Fonda plays the lead very much in the style of the classic romantic hero. Throughout his long career Fonda was most frequently cast as the everyman who was the very epitome of human virtue. Almost thirty years later Sergio Leone would give Fonda the opportunity to finally play a character (also named Frank, as it happens) of pure evil in Once Upon A Time In The West. Gene Tierney (in her debut role) provides some eye-candy and romantic interest as a newspaper reporter, but not much else. Much of the rest of the cast is filled out with actors from the previous film, with John Carradine reprising his part as Bob Ford. Once again, Donald Meek is the conniving railroad boss and Henry Hull chews up every piece of scenery in sight as the editor of the local paper and friend of the family. Hull’s best scenes come towards the end of the film in a flamboyant courtroom defence of Frank on a charge of murder. This scene mirrors reality, where Frank James stood trial for robbery and murder and whose character was attested to by an old Confederate officer. In truth, the film spends a good deal of time on the lingering animosity between north and south in the years following the Civil War. All in all, director Fritz Lang’s first foray into the western genre is a pleasant and entertaining one.

Fox’s DVD release of The Return of Frank James is an improvement on the transfer of Jesse James, but not by much. The image is a good deal more consistent here but darker scenes are still quite murky and washed out. Generally, the outdoor scenes fare the best with stronger colour and sharpness.