The Tattered Dress

Ever wondered how films end up neglected? I was almost going to say “lost” but that’s an entirely different category; I mean movies which are viewable, accessible with a bit of effort, but neither commercially available nor presented in optimum condition. By the way, I’m not offering any answers here. I’m very bit as mystified as the next guy, and I’m really only indulging in a bit of idle musing after watching a less than perfect version of The Tattered Dress (1957). You could argue that the cast is largely peopled with actors who have drifted a little too far out of the public consciousness, although I’m not wholly convinced by that one myself. Regardless of that, the film was directed by Jack Arnold, a cult favorite if ever there was one, and yet this work remains (apparently) unrestored and stubbornly unreleased.

Cinema sometimes feels like the theater of the senses, or maybe a more sensual version of the theater. If we lose the immediacy of the live performance, we also gain something in extreme intimacy, and then in an instant we can also achieve the cool distance of an observer in a gallery. And all the while our senses are targeted and stimulated, particularly our vision and hearing. I’ve come to think that film sequences without dialogue – not silent film, just with the dialogue stripped out – come closest to pure cinema, storytelling predominantly through visuals, music and ambient sound. The Tattered Dress opens like this: with a torn frock, a breathtaking blond racing through a desert night in an open top convertible, a tense meeting with her husband, another ride and then a cool and clinical killing. And not a word spoken.

That’s the setup, a late night killing, a crime of passion by a shooter who needs a sharp lawyer to do the defending. That lawyer is James Blane (Jeff Chandler), famed for his ability to defend the indefensible and the bane of district attorneys everywhere. Blane is blunt, cocksure and beholden to one creed only, the need to win, to succeed and feed the legend of his own ego. His courtroom wizardry has seen him scale the peaks of his profession while he’s sacrificed his personal satisfaction to attain it. If his wife maintains an arm’s length relationship and his children are rarely seen, well so be it. He gets his clients off, and he gets this latest one an acquittal too, shredding the reputation of a small town sheriff on the way. However, this is only part of the story, and Blane’s moment of triumph is an imposter, disguising a comedown that will shake his faith in himself to the core. Yet perhaps he’ll learn something about himself in the process.

Jack Arnold is held in high esteem, and rightly so, for the Sci-Fi films he made in the 1950s. Those films, such as It Came from Outer Space and the excitingly cerebral The Incredible Shrinking Man, were landmarks not only for that genre but for genre filmmaking as a whole. Still, it would be a mistake, and a disservice to the man, if one were to classify him on those terms alone. Tucked in among his credits, one can find a brace of what I’m happy to assert are classy and superior examples of tight and economical western cinema – No Name on the Bullet and Red Sundown. Also, around the same time, Arnold was making (along with Jeff Chandler as it happens) Man in the Shadow where he took aim at small town corruption and racism. Here, under the guise of a slick legal thriller, he cast a sideways glance at the American Dream.

I’d like to think the desert setting, which Arnold seemed drawn to on a number of occasions, has some significance. Is it too much of a stretch to view that harsh and bleak backdrop as a kind of blank canvas upon which he felt greater freedom to explore his themes? Because he does dig under the surface of the glossy 50s American success story – the hotshot lawyer stirs urban/rural and western/eastern hostilities right from the beginning, and his idealized family unit (not to mention that of his smooth and wealthy clients) is shown to be anything but ideal. In short, there’s a nasty bit of corrosion creeping in beneath the chrome trim. The broken home and tarnished ideals of the man are the price he has paid in his ruthless pursuit of fame and fortune, elbowing such trifles as truth and justice aside in his dash for a questionable prize. So, at this point, let me make a proposal – that Arnold was every bit as concerned, all through his Sci-Fi, western and thriller work, with a critical examination of the flaws and  barely suppressed crises of the post-war American soul as the more critically acclaimed Douglas Sirk. While this is something I’ve pondered before, I’ll freely admit that this George Zuckerman scripted production hauled it all front and center for me – Zuckerman also wrote a number of screenplays for Sirk, including the perennially underrated The Tarnished Angels.

Now, a brief word on the performances. Jeff Chandler’s early death robbed the cinema of one of the most promising talents of the era. It has also led to an under-appreciation of his talents and abilities, but a look at any of his best roles quickly highlights his powerful screen presence. Plenty of actors, especially leading men in their prime,  are and were loath to accept what might be perceived as unsympathetic roles. Chandler, however, seemed comfortable enough taking on less than wholesome parts. The lawyer here is not a nice man, he’s a grasping and ruthless type who has lost his way, and yet Chandler embraces this negativity and offers a welcome three-dimensional portrait of ambition colliding with a hunger for personal fulfillment. Facing off against him is Jack Carson, the butt of plenty of jokes as a character player. His bulky joviality is nicely subverted here and his cool undermining of Chandler is very memorable. Jeanne Crain is the estranged wife, still in love with Chandler but proud enough to hold herself back until he rediscovers his humanity. And finally, there’s Gail Russell, that fragile beauty in the middle of a temporary comeback that was destined to be short-lived.

To finish this piece, which has ended up running slightly longer than my other recent postings, let me just reiterate that The Tattered Dress is a classy melodrama/thriller with a fine cast and on-form director. That it remains unreleased on any current home video format is something I struggle to understand. There are many films we can safely say are deserving of a high quality digital release – this is most assuredly one of them. I can only hope someone sets about rectifying this oversight soon.

City of Bad Men

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A lot of you all rode into this town, but you are the only one who saw anything. You noticed the change. The others don’t look past the end of their guns. You saw the handwriting on the wall. They don’t even see the wall because their backs are against it. Their days are over. They don’t know it.

Sometimes I like to open with a quote that in some way sums up the tone, mood or message of a given movie. In this case, those lines above represent more of what I feel the film could have been as opposed to what we actually end up with. City of Bad Men (1953) is a title which left me feeling not entirely satisfied when I first saw it and so I thought I’d give it another go to see if my reaction would be any different this time. The answer is a kind of yes and no: yes in that I enjoyed it all a little more, but I still came away with that nagging sense of having seen an opportunity missed, or at least not fully grasped.

On St Patrick’s Day 1897 in Carson City, Nevada, a fight for the world heavyweight championship (actual footage of the bout can be viewed on YouTube) took place between Bob Fitzsimmons and “Gentleman” Jim Corbett. This event forms the backdrop to and also constitutes a major plot element of the film. Returning from an unsuccessful trip south of the border as soldiers of fortune is a group of weary men led by Brett Stanton (Dale Robertson). With little of worth to show for their time and effort, they are heading for Carson City with the hope of knocking over the bank in what they believe to be a perennially sleepy town. However, the town they ride into has undergone a transformation, partly due to the changing nature of the times but also as a result of the upcoming prize-fight. Yes, civilization and the trappings of the modern age – the motor car and luxuries like the shower – are slowly creeping westward. While his men gaze upon these alien sights with a kind of detached bemusement, Stanton’s calm features mask the fact that the seeds of an opportunistic plan have been sown in his mind. Crowds like this mean money – money which can be made or stolen. Yet Stanton isn’t the only one to entertain such thoughts; other gangs of unscrupulous men, most notably those led by Johnny Ringo (Richard Boone), have been drawn by the prospect of easy pickings. The local lawmen realize the volatility of such a situation and hit on the novel idea of appealing to the mutual suspicion of these various desperadoes and convincing them that the best way to keep the peace (and thus protect their own mercenary interests) is by keeping an eye on each other. Stanton is smart enough to see the advantages of such an arrangement, but he’s also aware of the complications and obstacles ahead of him: the need to come up with a viable plan to pull off a spectacular heist, the latent jealousy of his brother Gar (Lloyd Bridges), and the feelings he still nurses for the girl (Jeanne Crain) left all those years ago.

As I see it, there are four major themes at play in the movie – the noir-tinged heist plot, the classic idea of changing times, the sibling rivalry, and the notion of redemption earned through love. Lots of material to chew over yet only one, the heist aspect, is realized fully and successfully. The fact the script allows this to develop naturally and then the way Harmon Jones directs its execution, cutting between the fight, the collection of the takings and the way the money is subsequently lifted, is a fluid and assured piece of filmmaking. It makes for a fitting climax to the picture, but also highlights the deficiencies in the handling of the other facets. The early scenes give the impression that the “men out of time” part will be of greater importance, but it’s something the film only pays lip service to in reality. Similarly, the tension between Brett and Gar is never fully explored and its resolution feels rushed in the end. As for redemption, which ought to form the centerpiece of a western of this era, I was left feeling that it’s achieved a touch too easily, and the means by which it’s linked to Brett’s reconciliation with his old flame is weakened by its abruptness. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that the film has a strong foundation with a number of rich veins running through it, only few of which are mined and even then not to their full extent.

When called upon to do so, Dale Robertson was good at conveying cold intensity but that wasn’t really a requirement in this role. He displays the necessary toughness to hold the whip hand over his own bunch of ne’er do wells and to keep his rivals in check. Essentially though, the part of Brett Stanton is all about calmness, a kind of melancholy thoughtfulness. His air of regret and his flexible morality tie in with, and feel like an extension of sorts of, the type of disillusioned veterans so common in film noir, bewildered by and isolated from the new world they find themselves confronted with. For me, Robertson’s quietness and restraint is one of the major strengths of the picture. Ranged against that is the restlessness and impatience of Lloyd Bridges and, more significantly, the rattlesnake charm of Richard Boone. If anything, Boone is underused in the movie, lighting up the screen every time he appears while leaving you disappointed he’s not there more. Which brings us to Jeanne Crain – her character is a vital one through the effect she has on Robertson, but the script doesn’t treat her well. She’s placed in a conflicted position that’s loaded with dramatic possibilities yet her character arc isn’t wholly convincing and the resolution, which forms the core the film’s resolution in itself, is just a little too convenient for my liking. In support, we have Carole Mathews, Rodolfo Acosta, James Best, Leo Gordon, John Doucette and, in blink and you’ll miss them parts, Frank Ferguson and Percy Helton.

City of Bad Men is a 20th Century Fox production and was released on DVD in Spain some years ago by Impulso, licensing the title from Fox. That disc offers a passable transfer which is clearly unrestored. There are a number of instances of print damage and the colors tend to look faded throughout. Having said that, it’s perfectly watchable – there was subsequently a US release by Fox itself, but I have no idea how that transfer compares. The Spanish DVD offers the original English soundtrack along with a Spanish dub and optional Spanish subtitles. Of the Harmon Jones westerns I’ve seen, I’d say this is probably the least of them. I’d certainly rank it below his other two with Robertson, The Silver Whip and A Day of Fury. All told, there are some positive points and the film remains briskly enjoyable. Nevertheless, I can’t shake that feeling that it had more to offer than it ultimately delivered. In the final analysis, a medium effort.

 

 

Man Without a Star

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When you think of films about the passing of the old west and the shrinking of the frontier it’s examples from the late 1960s and 1970s that tend to spring to mind. As the western entered its own autumnal phase, the movies, perhaps quite naturally, turned their focus onto the gradual decline of the period they depicted. However, the sense of a way of life passing wasn’t confined to films of this time alone. Man Without a Star (1955) was made during the genre’s heyday, yet it tells the tale of a man driven ever further by the inexorable closing of the open range to seek out a place that offered the kind of freedom he once took for granted. This is a fascinating and emotive theme, and it runs throughout the film, but it’s diluted somewhat by a script that has the hero behaving in a way that, while entirely appropriate within the framework of the classic western, sees him contradicting his own personal philosophy.

Dempsey Rae (Kirk Douglas) is a drifter, as the title suggests, a man who’s lost or perhaps never had a point of reference to guide him through life. His wanderings have taken him ever further from his roots in search of an elusive idyll. He waxes lyrical about the open range that used to allow men to go wherever their fancy took them, and thinks he may have stumbled upon his goal when he finds himself hired on as a hand on an expanding ranch. But that’s not to be; the barbed wire that signals the end of the vast expanses of untamed country are never far behind. No sooner has Rae settled into this comfortable position than the neighbouring ranchers start to string wire and close off the land to protect their grazing from the encroachment of his employer. That employer is Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain), a hard headed woman from the east who intends to make her fortune no matter what obstacles are thrown in her path. After some initial hostility, she sees Rae as the man on whom she can depend on both a professional and personal level. And so Rae becomes Reed’s top hand, her lover, and her enforcer. That ought to be more than enough to occupy any man, but Rae has also taken on a kind of paternal role for a young man, Jeff Jimson (William Campbell), who has drifted north with him. It’s the arrival, with more cattle to swell Reed’s already substantial herd, of an old acquaintance of Rae’s that tips the balance though. Steve Miles (Richard Boone) is a mean and dangerous figure who’s prepared to take the ruthless steps that Rae baulked at, and will force his rival onto the sidelines. Miles’ actions force Rae’s hand and he has no option but to reconsider his previous prejudices. This, naturally, is par for the course in a western but it does have the effect of making Rae’s character less focused – he smoothly crosses the line to defend those whose methods he once railed against. Here we see a man who has suffered personal loss, whose body is crossed by the scars left behind by the hated wire, yet one who is prepared to forget all that and side with his former enemies as a result of his dislike of Miles and his methods. It builds Rae up into a hero of course, but it also cops out to a degree. I can’t help feeling that the story might have panned out into something more interesting and subversive had the character of Rae been allowed to stick to his guns and go down fighting rather than yield to the advance of progress.

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I haven’t seen a huge number of King Vidor’s films, especially not his early output. However, of those I have seen (six or seven pictures I guess), I must admit they all look great. Man Without a Star is no exception in that regard, there’s a richness to the images on show that’s extremely attractive. Clearly, having a top class cameraman like Russell Metty on hand didn’t hurt, and the result is some very well staged sequences. The climactic stampede, leading to the fight between Douglas and Boone, is a good example of this. Kirk Douglas’ performance in the movie is what I’d term a patchy one and not really up there with the best he was capable of. At times, he produces the kind of intensity that marked his more memorable roles, while at other moments he resorts to something akin to a parody of himself. In the same way that his character arc, which I mentioned before, doesn’t entirely satisfy, the jump from brooding, hair trigger moodiness to comedic mugging fails to flow naturally. In fact, the comic interludes are perhaps the least successful aspects of the film. At one appalling point, William Campbell strolls into the saloon done up in the kind of outfit that might have given Bob Hope pause for reflection in The Paleface, leading to some merciless ribbing from Douglas. The thing is though that it doesn’t actually work as it just feels forced and it jars. Scenes such as this don’t blend in with the rest of the movie and seem like they’ve been ported over from an entirely different production. What does succeed is the needling relationship between Douglas and Richard Boone, whose work generated some discussion on this site a few weeks back. Personally, I found myself yearning for more screen time for Boone and considerably less for Mr Campbell. Another positive aspect is the role played by Jeanne Crain. The traditional western template equates the feminine with domesticity, pacifism and a civilising influence. Man Without a Star, on the other hand, sees this truism overturned. Ms Crain exudes a sassy antagonism, sat on her buckboard, skirts hitched high and hat at a provocatively rakish angle. It is she, rather than the meek, male neighbouring ranchers, who takes on the role of aggressor and advocate of the open range that characterised the real wildness of the old west.

As far as I’m aware, Man Without a Star is currently available on DVD from three sources, and all of them bear some imperfections. There’s a French release that presents the movie, I believe, in a 4:3 aspect ratio and forces subtitles on the English track. There are also versions out in Germany and Australia, both of which have the movie in the correct 2:1 ratio. I’ve only seen some screencaps of the German disc but it appears that the colours have been drained and the overall result is a drab and flat looking image. I have the Australian DVD, which offers far richer colours yet looks like it may be interlaced. Despite that, the R4 version is a generally pleasing effort and I can’t say I was aware of any print damage or other distractions. The disc is completely barebones – no extras, no subtitles, not even a menu that I can locate. All in all, Man Without a Star is an imperfect film; it looks good and explores some interesting themes, but there’s an uneven quality to both the writing and lead performance that weaken it slightly. Even so, it’s an above average production that deserves to be seen by anyone with an interest in westerns of the period.

 

Dangerous Crossing

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How many people are familiar with the name John Dickson Carr? I suspect the answer is very few, yet from the 1930s through the 1960s he was one of the best known writers of mystery fiction. In the decades since he has faded into relative obscurity while his contemporary Agatha Christie has remained a recognizable commodity with the general public. Both of these writers specialised in detective stories that were notable not for their strong characterization but for their clever, and sometimes ingenious, plotting. However, one has remained highly marketable and the other has not – why? The changing taste of the reading public is no good as an explanation since the work of both of them is very much a product of its time. No, the answer may lie in the fact that, at least from the 1970s on, Christie’s writing has been regularly adapted for both television and the big screen. So, as a big fan of Carr, it’s refreshing to see a film available that was sourced from his work.

A newlywed bride (Jeanne Crain) stands on the dock waiting for her husband (Carl Betz). When he arrives they both board the transatlantic liner that will carry them off on their honeymoon. Their happiness, though, is destined to be a short-lived affair. While the husband goes off to see the purser, the wife agrees to meet him in the bar and waits there. It’s a long wait, and when she tries to find him it appears that no one else on the ship has ever laid eyes on the groom. As an increasingly paranoid Crain roams the fog bound ship in an effort to trace her missing spouse, and prove that she’s not some nut job, the characters whom she encounters range from the suspicious to the downright untrustworthy. That, in a nutshell, is the plot of Dangerous Crossing (1953), and the result is a neat and professional little mystery that reaches a satisfying conclusion in its short running time. 

Since this is essentially a B picture, there are no major stars on view and the focus is firmly on Crain, and Michael Rennie (TV’s Harry Lime) as the seemingly sympathetic doctor. Crain’s best scenes come towards the beginning of the movie as it slowly dawns on her that her husband is not to be found on the ship and everyone, both crew and fellow passengers alike, treat her with what could be best described as indulgent scepticism. There are also enough doubts sown in the minds of the viewer as to whether the heroine is delusional or the victim of an elaborate plot to keep things interesting. Michael Rennie is solid, as always, playing the one character who may believe Crain’s story. The support cast doesn’t feature too many faces that would be immediately recognizable, but Willis Bouchey (who graced many a John Ford picture) has a nice turn as the ship’s captain.

Jeanne Crain fears for both her life and her sanity.

While Dangerous Crossing has been released as part of the latest wave of noirs from Fox it does not, in my opinion anyway, really belong in that category. It is most assuredly a mystery, albeit one with a few noir touches such as the paranoid atmosphere and the shadowy photography of Joseph LaShelle. There are some nice sequences on the foggy nighttime decks, a tense cat-and-mouse scene in the baggage hold and a chase through a crowded ballroom. This is all handled competently, if unspectacularly, by director Joseph M. Newman. In the hands of someone more imaginative, Hitchcock for example, these set pieces could have been much more memorable. As it is, they seem a little flat – not bad, just not as good as they could have been. 

For a fan of his work, it’s great to see some of John Dickson Carr’s work on the screen. Carr was a hugely prolific writer (he also worked under the pseudonym Carter Dickson since his output was so prodigious that he needed two publishers to handle it) yet few of his works have appeared  on film and I’m not sure why this is. I had been of the opinion that the tricky nature of his plotting might not translate well to film but I’m not so sure of that now. Anyone familiar with the TV series Jonathan Creek (certainly inspired by the locked room and impossible crime puzzles of Carr) will know that this kind of material can work successfully if approached in the right way. Whatever, fans of the master of detection – a kind of mix of Christie, Chesterton and M.R. James – will have to settle for this for now.

The DVD of Dangerous Crossing, part of the recently revived Fox Noir line, is fantastic looking and I’d be hard pressed to find any fault with it. Fox have been doing great work in offering rare and surprising titles in very nice and affordable editions. In addition to the film, there’s a commentary track, an isolated score from Lionel Newman, trailer etc. We also get a short featurette on the film with info on Jeanne Crain and on Fox’s recycling of their sets; I suggest watching the movie first, though, as the featurette does contain a spoiler. So, you get an entertaining, if minor film in a fine presentation from Fox – just remember, it’s not really noir.