The People Against O’Hara

“You can’t stop what’s coming.”

Near the end of the 2007 neo-noir No Country for Old Men the homespun truism quoted above is shared with the lead character, a man seeking to make some sort of sense out of a world that is not only passing him by but practically speeding off over the horizon. That feeling of inevitability, of random and relentless occurrences that cannot be avoided but only faced and dealt with if or when they appear, is something which has fueled film noir right from the beginning. The People Against O’Hara (1951) is one of those fatalistic studies of the inevitable, where the unraveling of a crime goes hand in hand with the unraveling of a man’s life.

New York streets by night, rain slicked and neon drenched, a grizzled seaman contemptuous of the noisy jukebox drifts out of a bar that could have been painted by Edward Hopper. Out on the street he pauses by the kerbside and is startled by the sound of gunfire from across the way, where a killer and his victim are silhouetted in the glare spilling from a doorway overlooking the sidewalk. The identity of the dead man is soon established, and the forensics team are quick to quick to obtain evidence of who had been driving the car used for the getaway. There is no doubt about the name of the wheelman, but establishing who did the shooting may not be such a cut and dried affair. The prime suspect is the owner of that vehicle, Johnny O’Hara (James Arness). The viewer knows he can’t have done the deed as he is shown out of town trying to break up for good with a distraught and emotional girl. And there, in the words of a well-known prince of Denmark, is the rub: that clinging, desperate girl is the wife of a notorious gangland boss (Eduardo Ciannelli), a man known to visit unspeakable and horrific vengeance on anyone stupid enough to cross him. Under the circumstances, it should not come as any surprise to see O’Hara make a run for it when as yet unidentified but armed men approach him on his way home. Nor is it hard to understand his steadfast refusal to offer an alibi for the time the murder took place, not when he is charged, not when a blatantly crooked witness falsely implicates him, and not even when he finds himself on trial for his life.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is an extraordinarily delicate situation, one requiring deft legal skills if the accused is to have any chance of beating the rap and remaining in one piece. The O’Hara family’s hopes are pinned on one man, noted attorney James Curtayne (Spencer Tracy). However, this may be a distinctly shaky foundation on which to build anything, least of all the fate of a man facing a capital charge. Curtayne has retreated from criminal trial work, the pressures and strains of which had exacerbated his alcohol dependency. Still, it’s a rare Irishman who can cast off the cloak of sentimentality with ease, and the pitiful entreaty of old acquaintances fallen on hard times is a siren call that is hard to resist. The odds are poor though; the case, despite being shored up by a wall of deceit, is a tough one, the client is paralyzed by an unholy combination of fear and nobility, the D.A. (John Hodiak) is sharp and dedicated, and Curtayne knows he is slipping, that the ground is falling away beneath him while he is too weary and damaged to regain a firm footing. It’s that inevitability, a remorseless sliding sensation, one which although it cannot be halted may yet offer one last shot at a form of redemption.

The People Against O’Hara was the first of three films that John Sturges and Spencer Tracy would make together, being followed by the better known Bad Day at Black Rock and The Old Man and the Sea. It hails from that relatively early period in Sturges’ career when he was working in all kinds of genres. He would really be in his element within a few years as the widescreen process took off and he quickly became one of its top practitioners with a wonderful eye for composition and placement. The pictures he moved on to direct often afforded him the opportunity to incorporate landscapes and outdoor shooting in general into his visual toolkit, and The People Against O’Hara also features some excellent use of genuine Manhattan locations. Having John Alton as cinematographer practically guarantees a strong visual aesthetic. Equally adept in color or black and white (his work with Anthony Mann is justly celebrated but he created some terrific images for Vincente Minnelli too, for example) he effortlessly brings a classic noir look to Sturges’ movie. The opening and closing scenes in particular are bathed in impenetrable, stifling shadow, characters in the foreground having their attention drawn into and fixed upon what Alton has highlighted deep within the background, and the viewer is hooked and reeled in in exactly the same way.

When I think of Spencer Tracy in legal dramas I automatically picture him in a couple of late career movies for Stanley Kramer (Inherit the Wind & Judgment at Nuremberg) and I suspect I’m not alone in doing so. As such, the image of characters with strong moral convictions and a deep-seated personal nobility is conjured up. Therefore, it’s something of a shock to see him don a rather tarnished crown in The People Against O’Hara. Here Tracy is not so much the staunch and steadfast pillar of legal ethics as a compromised, if not quite crumbling, monument to former greatness. He’s playing a man running on the fumes of a reputation, someone we get to meet on the downside of his career, shaken by alcoholism and ill-health and all the insecurities and frailties that come along for the ride. It’s perfectly clear that his heart is in the right place, although his willingness to head back into the criminal courts may be motivated not only by old loyalties and a sense of altruism, but also by an undeniable hunger for the old battleground and the possibility of new, revitalizing victories. So the honor and nobility are there, but they have acquired a vaguely seedy quality, coated by a film of failure and uncertainty, and Tracy communicates all that so well in those courtroom scenes where his frustration at his own faltering efforts and foggy thinking leave him humiliated and desperate, witnessing his hopes disintegrating before his eyes yet fully aware of his own impotence in the face of catastorophe. It’s that encroaching despair that drives him back towards the bottle and poor judgment, and opens the door to the dangerous road he ultimately opts for in order to justify his client’s faith and redeem himself.

John Hodiak is quiet, competent and scrupulous to a fault as the D.A. whose professional life is, by contrast, following a very different trajectory. The easy option in a story such as this would be to have the D.A. detouring down devious or flat out dishonest legal byroads. However, the calm decency which Hodiak conveys so effectively emphasizes the crisis unfolding in the life of his rival. It is not only the clever writing though, the coolly underplayed performance makes what might have been just another clichéd role into something real and credible. Similarly, old pro Pat O’Brien portrays his veteran cop in a nuanced and sympathetic way, neither as saint nor thug but as a normal human being able to empathize with the flawed people around him. Diana Lynn’s turn as Tracy’s anxious and devoted daughter is attractively done too; her big scene confronting her father as he is on the point of crashing spectacularly off the wagon provided an opportunity to ramp up the drama and she hits the right emotional balance in those moments.

The trend in film noir in the 1950s saw a slow drift away from the dark personal dilemmas that had been commonly explored in the preceding decade towards the broader social malaise represented by organized crime. A movie such as The People Against O’Hara feels like something of a halfway house. The mob connection heavily impacts the lives of the characters but the main focus of the film remains on the trials of Curtayne, the literal one he’s fighting in the courtroom and the spiritual one being waged for his heart and soul. All told, it makes for an attractive blend. Mob related material has a tendency to lean into the showier side in general and one of the flashier performances comes courtesy of William Campbell’s cheap hood. He is all smirks and smarm, faux indignation jostling for position with sugarcoated insincerity, adding layers of slime and a sickening unctuousness. Considerably higher up the criminal food chain comes Eduardo Ciannelli. He brings real menace to his part, those saurian features hinting at medieval malice. Even little throwaway scenes like his sharp exchange with an apparent laborer careless enough to splash his expensive clothes, leading to him dismissively talking about this “paisano” and making cracks about cutting out tongues, before revealing that the pleading supplicant is in fact his own father carry a real chill. In support, Jay C Flippen’s broadly sketched Scandinavian sailor is a fun addition and there are small parts for Arthur Shields (who contributed many a telling and memorable moment in a number of films for John Ford among others), Richard Anderson and, in a practically “blink and you’ll miss him” role, a young Charles Bronson.

The People Against O’Hara was released on DVD in the US by Warner Brothers as part of the Archive Collection a decade ago, and there is a Spanish edition on the market too. It is not a film that gets talked about all that often, probably getting lost in among other more celebrated titles in the respective filmographies of Spencer Tracy and John Sturges. I like it quite a bit as it hits a lot of the themes and motifs that draw me to the movies, and the quality of the personnel involved makes it undeniably attractive.

Somewhere in the Night

Somewhere in the Night (1946), that title alone is imbued with all the uncertainty and ambiguity that is such an essential ingredient of film noir. Add in the theme of amnesia and it’s tempting to imagine this movie might be the classic example of the form. Well, it doesn’t quite get there; the plot is twisty, the characters even more so and their motives are buried deep in a half-remembered past. Everything looks right, and at times sounds right too, but maybe there is too much going on, too many strands to follow with the result that the viewer is left to navigate the kind of fog our protagonist must battle his way through.

No time is wasted in the opening, a field hospital where all manner of wounds and injuries are being treated by stressed and weary medics. George Taylor (John Hodiak) is lying in bunk drifting in and out of a morphine induced haze, his jaw wired up and his memory wiped after a close encounter with a grenade. The fact is George Taylor isn’t even sure that’s his real name, the doctors call him that but he doesn’t really know, and he’s both puzzled and uneasy by the letter he finds among his belongings. It’s incomplete but there’s enough there to tell him it’s from a woman, one who is consumed with bitterness and recrimination, and all of it directed towards him. Well he eventually gets shipped back to the States and so begins his fumbling efforts to establish his identity, efforts which hint at large sums of money awaiting him, but few friends if any to guide him along. Conversely, the more he learns, the less he appears to know, and the more nonplussed he becomes. A letter from a guy called Larry Cravat tells him there’s cash in the bank in his name, but this only increases his suspicion. Who is Larry Cravat, and why does every question asked about him lead to further suspicion and violence? Taylor’s world is reduced to a stumbling quest through night clubs and slums, peopled by hoods and chiselers, where swank businessmen rub shoulders with dubious fortune-tellers and a convoluted trail involving Nazi loot and murder leads to a sinister sanatorium and a final showdown on the waterfront.

The films of Joseph L Mankiewicz have a tendency to be stylish but wordy, and I think that’s true of Somewhere in the Night. Norbert Brodine’s cinematography drapes the 20th Century Fox studio sets in very attractive shadows while Mankiewicz’s script (with uncredited contributions from Lee Strasberg and Somerset Maugham) and direction are characteristically polished. For all that though, the plot is packed tight and is of a density that hinders rather than helps. For every morsel of slick, hard-boiled idiom, there’s a side order of undercooked exposition to be dealt with. This kills the pace at vital moments, the complications unnecessary and the detours involved only sporadically interesting. While a predatory Margo Woode offers a masterclass in would-be sophisticated patter and burnished brass, her presence and interactions with a slippery and proudly amoral Fritz Kortner feel like they have blown in from a different movie.  In fact, the entire Nazi loot subplot has an air of pastiche to it, channeling elements of The Maltese Falcon to such an extent that by the time the confrontation in Kortner’s dingy flat rolls around I was half expecting Hodiak to lean over to Ms Woode and mutter: “Six, two and even they’re selling you out.”

I can’t help thinking tales of amnesia and 1940s movies seem to go hand in hand, a feeling that’s perhaps been heightened by the fact I watched another variation on this the other day in William Dieterle’s Love Letters. In that case, however, the loss of memory is suffered by Jennifer Jones’ traumatized heroine as opposed to Joseph Cotten’s returning veteran. Nevertheless, that tumultuous post-war world, where everything has been upended and all the old certainties swept aside, provides fertile ground for stories of recollections lost and the consequent pros and cons presented by the unknown and the uncharted. John Hodiak is a personable hero, getting across the self-doubt of his character, that need to learn more about the man he once was while also fearing what he may discover in the process.

Nancy Guild is fine as his Girl Friday, but her role is a touch bland and she makes only a limited impression compared to Margo Woode’s flashy turn.  Where Hodiak is necessarily cautious, Richard Conte is typically sharp and assured, rapping out his lines with a confidence that dares the world to challenge him. Lloyd Nolan is hugely enjoyable as the cop in the case, unflappable and unfazed by the deceptions and betrayals all around him, representing a beacon of sorts amid all the shifting currents. A word too for Josephine Hutchinson; hers is a small part and arguably not really essential in advancing the plot yet that one scene she has remains memorable. The movie makes a number of points about the effects of the war on those who have come back as different men to a radically changed society, but the effect on those who were left behind is no less important. That brief interlude which says so much about loss, loneliness and the hurt of missed opportunities is deeply touching, and Josephine Hutchinson’s sensitive and restrained work opposite Hodiak is quite wonderful.

Somewhere in the Night is a movie which has always felt like a bit of a companion piece for The Crooked Way. They do not tell the same story but there are definite points of similarity, enough to tie them together in this viewer’s mind at least. I think the latter is the more successful film due to its pared down nature and tighter focus overall. That said, Somewhere in the Night is entertaining, classy and has enough positives to offset its weaknesses. Perhaps it isn’t the quintessential film noir that the title alludes to, but it’s still a solid genre piece.

So, that brings me to the end of 2021. All that’s left to say is Happy New Year to all those who have spent time here. May 2022 bring only good things for all of us.

Ambush at Tomahawk Gap

A quick perusal of the active ingredients of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap (1953) – a ghost town, a small group of criminals bound together by greed yet riven by hatred and petty squabbles, a solitary woman, and the ever present threat posed by marauding Apache bands in the surrounding hills – might bring to mind Quantez, which I looked at here earlier in the year. While these shared features are plain to see the two movies are quite distinct; even if I feel Quantez is the better film all round, that is not to say Ambush at Tomahawk Gap is a poor effort. On the contrary, this is a tight, suspenseful and entertaining piece of work.

The quest for revenge is a common cinematic motif, one which can be found across a broad range of genres. Westerns have made use of it extensively, something about the rugged backdrop and the sense that justice is not yet fully forged and must be seized hot from the flames of a still uncivilized land seems to make for a good fit. The opening of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap looks as though the story will lead us once more down this well trodden path, and then it doesn’t. Four men have just been released after serving a sentence in Yuma prison: Egan (David Brian), Kid (John Derek), Doc (Ray Teal), and McCord (John Hodiak). They represent a selection of types from the cold-hearted tough, the green hothead, the weary old-timer, through to the brooding outsider. McCord is the latter, an innocent man who was convicted of a crime he hadn’t committed and who has done another man’s time, the other man being Egan’s brother. At this point you would be forgiven for thinking that the plot is going to focus on the vengeance aspect. However, it’s soon established that McCord is on to a loser on that score, the guilty man having been gunned down for cheating at cards soon after his fall guy took up residence behind bars. No, the quest in this case is for the spoils of the robbery these men did hard time for, cash which has never been recovered and is probably secreted somewhere in the abandoned town of Tomahawk Gap, deep in Apache territory. During the course of the trek to this potential treasure trove, and following a skirmish with a band of hostiles, the four travelers pick up a Navajo woman (Maria Elena Marques) who has been held captive. Her wounding of the Kid leads to a subsequent fit of remorse and a bond, and ultimately a romance, will develop between them. On the other hand, there is no love lost between Egan and McCord, each warily circling the other, with one eye on the possibility of obtaining great riches and the other on an opportunity to eliminate the competition. Predictably perhaps, the tensions and rivalries which have been simmering all along come to the boil in the dust swept saloon and echoing streets of a dead town, one which is soon to claim a few more souls for its ramshackle cemetery.

Quantez owes much to the nuanced performances of Fred MacMurray and Dorothy Malone, and of course to the artistry of Carl E Guthrie’s cinematography. Ambush at Tomahawk Gap doesn’t have those to fall back on but Henry Freulich still produces some remarkable images using filters and gets a lot of value out of the ghost town set. Where Quantez trades heavily on its themes of regret and redemption and the slow burn atmosphere this movie folds in more incident and complications to jazz up the pace, yet there is a redemptive aspect at the back of it all too.  Although Fred F Sears was a fairly prolific director I have to confess that I’m not familiar with much of his work – Earth Vs the Flying Saucers is the only other of his pictures I can recall watching off hand. Anyway, his handling of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap is sound and indeed stylish in places, using interesting setups and getting the most out of his small cast.

John Hodiak took the lead as the wronged man and turns in some good work. I’m not sure the writing did him any favors by having his character switch from being motivated by a desire for justice to a more straightforward and altogether less noble demand for compensation. Still, Hodiak carries it off fine. His chief competitor is David Brian, all brashness and bullying, a one-dimensional demonstration of self-absorption, but, again, that’s how the character is written. John Derek’s Kid is rebellious and quick-tempered as well as being suitably callow and credulous. The only other role I have seen Maria Elena Marques play was opposite Clark Gable in Across the Wide Missouri. That movie saw her taking on a part light on dialogue and she is in a similar position here, on both occasions she gave an accomplished performance. However, some of the best work is done by veteran character actor Ray Teal. Often cast as villains, he always added to the entertainment value of any movie he appeared in. The role of Doc is a sympathetic one, a man who has  learned something from life, who has has become philosophical about his own shortcomings and solicitous when it comes to the welfare of the Kid. Teal brings a touching warmth to his part and it may well be the best of his long career.

It should not be too difficult to locate a copy of Ambush at Tomahawk Gap. It was released as a good looking manufactured on demand DVD in the US and versions have shown up in a number of European countries too. It’s an attractive movie, colorful and offering a welcome balance of interior and exterior work. Personally, I am a fan of such tightly made and self-contained films, the restricted focus often brings out the best in many of those involved and the typically pared down stories mean the pace is necessarily brisk. Ambush at Tomahawk Gap may not be all that well known but I think western fans will find it rewarding.

Ambush

Mention cavalry films to anyone familiar with classic era movies, and westerns in particular, and the odds are they will immediately think of John Ford. Even so, most of those same fans will be aware of the fact that he certainly wasn’t the only one to spin tales of the men and women populating the isolated and dusty outposts of the frontier. The self-contained communities, the remoteness and the ever-present danger of these settings meant they were bursting with potential as backdrops for a wide range of dramatic developments. Ambush (1950), with its focus as much on the tensions simmering away within the fort as the threats of the hostile land around it, and of course the strong Irish presence among the horse soldiers, appears reminiscent of a Ford movie. And yet it’s a different creature at heart; the sentimentality and whimsy aren’t  there, and the sense of community is not as pronounced.

There’s a fine, tense opening which underlines the perilous situation. It’s Arizona and Apache chief Diablito (Charles Stevens) has broken out of the reservation and is raiding. The first shot of the movie reveals the aftermath of a massacre, broken bodies strewn across the landscape amid the smouldering remnants of wagons, the only sound being the cries of the retreating raiders. Up in the mountains Ward Kinsman (Robert Taylor), some time scout for the army, is busy packing away the gold he has been prospecting for, but stops abruptly when a startled bird rises suddenly from a copse of bushes. His caution is understandable since the smoke drifting off neighboring peaks indicates Diablito isn’t far away. Still, it’s something of a false alarm as the alien presence is actually only that of Holly (John McIntire), another scout who’s been sent to bring Kinsman back to base. While that in itself is far from plain sailing, it’s achieved in due course and main thread of the story becomes apparent. A young woman by the name of Ann Duverall (Arlene Dahl) has come west in the hopes of finding her sister who has been abducted by the Apache. Her family is army and so she the influence needed to have a party under the command of Captain Lorrison (John Hodiak) assigned to the task. It’s hoped that Kinsman can be persuaded to sign on as scout, thus his summons back to the fort at short notice. What follows is the attempts to trace and rescue the captive woman, complicated by two romantic subplots. The first is a fairly standard affair involving competition between Taylor and Hodiak for the affections of Dahl. The other is treated as a subsidiary, although I feel it’s much more interesting, and concerns the forbidden relationship between a young lieutenant (Don Taylor) and the abused wife (Jean Hagen) of an enlisted man.

Ambush was the last movie made by Sam Wood, he died before its release, and it’s a solid piece of work with some memorable sequences, well-handled pathos and a nice line in suspense. Cavalry westerns, especially those which spend any amount of time in and around a fort or outpost, have a tendency to become a touch episodic. That’s the case here, as the film digs into the lives of the characters and builds towards the final confrontation with Diablito’s Apaches. The plus side of this though is that the scenes in the fort have a tight shadowy atmosphere, a reflection perhaps of the restrictive nature of army life and its effects on the personal lives of the characters. ON the other hand, there’s also plenty of location work on view, with New Mexico standing in for Arizona, and the outdoor action scenes are very well shot. If I have a criticism, it would be that some of the romantic stuff revolving around Taylor, Dahl and Hodiak could have been cut. I see it as being used to emphasize the rivalry between the two men but it’s not really necessary, adds little and slows things down somewhat. Aside from that, the movie carries only a little fat and moves along at a nice clip.

Taylor had already tried his hand at westerns back in 1941 in Billy the Kid. At that time he was 30 years old and, although arguably too old to be playing Mr Bonney, he looked a little fresh-faced for the genre. By the time of Ambush the war years were behind him, he was rapidly closing in on 40 and had taken on the harder look that would serve him well throughout the coming decade. Aside from the slightly jaded toughness that make his scenes with Dahl more interesting, there’s a surprising level of vulnerability on show too. It’s not so often that you see films of the era allowing their leading man to take a good old-fashioned hiding, but that’s exactly what happens to Taylor’s character at one point when he challenges Hodiak’s by-the-book officer to a fight. And Hodiak is fine too in that inflexible role although, as I mentioned before, the contrived romantic rivalry over Ms Dahl is something of a pointless distraction. Dahl’s role was mainly about looking good and keeping her potential suitors on their toes, and she manages both tasks easily. The more complex female part was given to Jean Hagen, she doesn’t get to exhibit the glamor of Dahl but it’s her conflicted yet loyal woman who makes the bigger impression – both actresses were cast together again in the following year’s Barry Sullivan crime picture No Questions Asked. Lots of good support is provided by Don Taylor (as Hagen’s would-be lover), the ever-reliable John McIntire, Bruce Cowling (who would go on to play Wyatt Earp in the underrated Masterson of Kansas), Leon Ames and Ray Teal.

There are plenty of options for watching Ambush as there are DVDs available from the Warner Archive in the US, as well as editions on the market in Spain and Italy. I have the Spanish version, although I did own the Archive disc too in the past and the transfer looks identical to my eyes. It’s one of those unrestored prints – cue markers and the odd scratch on view – that’s in reasonable shape overall. It could use a clean up but it’s not the kind of title whose profile, or market potential, is likely to justify the expense that would entail. So, Ambush offers a strong cast, authentic locations and good visuals. Marguerite Roberts’ script, taken from a Luke Short novel, maybe should have trimmed some material from the mid-section but that’s not what we could term a fatal flaw by any means – it remains a well-made and entertaining western.

Across the Wide Missouri

poster196-1

I’ve already featured a number of films that highlighted the trend in 1950s westerns towards a more sympathetic and mature view of the various native peoples and their relationships with the westward moving settlers. William Wellman’s contribution to this phenomenon can be seen in Across the Wide Missouri (1951), where his setting of the story in the 1820s and its focus on trappers and mountain men, as opposed to the later arrival of large groups of settlers, allows him to sidestep political issues and tell a more human tale. Wellman’s movie suffered from some overzealous editing that frankly hacked his work to pieces and leaves the version available to us today an imperfect one. The director was greatly displeased by this, virtually disowning the film, yet what remains is still a beautifully shot work that has some emotional punch, in spite of what was left on the cutting room floor.

The story is centered around Flint Mitchell (Clark Gable), a rough and ready mountain man and trapper, whose adventures we follow in the form of the narrated reminiscences of his grown-up son – voiced by an uncredited Howard Keel. Mitchell is in the process of putting together an expedition to head into Blackfoot country in search of lucrative beaver pelts. With most of the arrangements in place, Mitchell catches the attention of a young Blackfoot girl, Kamiah (Maria Elena Marques), who has been brought up by the Nez Perce. Despite being amused by her advances, he initially brushes her off. It’s only when he learns of the plans of Brecan (John Hodiak), a Scot who has become so enamored of the Blackfoot way of life that he’s literally “gone native” and been integrated into their tribe, to bring her back to her own people that he changes his tune. Kamiah is the granddaughter of Bear Ghost (Jack Holt), the tribe’s elder, and Mitchell sees an opportunity to gain favour. Of course the only way to take the girl from the Nez Perce is to marry her and bring her back as his wife. While Mitchell isn’t averse to the idea, he still regards Kamiah primarily as a bargaining chip at this stage. In the course of the long trek though he finds himself genuinely falling for her charms. Mitchell doesn’t speak a word of her language, nor she his, and all but the most basic communication has to be conducted through the medium of an interpreter, an old French trapper by the name of Pierre (Adolphe Menjou). One of the interesting aspects of the film is the fact that the Indian characters, and the many of the French too, speak exclusively in their own tongue, lending a touch of authenticity to it all. With much of the focus of the middle section of the movie on the arduous journey undertaken by Mitchell and his fellow hunters, it’s basically an outdoor adventure yarn with a romance woven into it. Although the adventurous elements occupy a lot of the running time, the real heart of the film comes from the interracial romance and the gradual development of cultural understanding that accompanies it. However, few tales succeed without the introduction of some kind of conflict, and that’s provided here by the appearance of a rising Blackfoot warrior, Ironshirt (Ricardo Montalban), whose enmity with Mitchell leads to the film taking a tragic turn at the end.

 

My father told me that for the first time, he saw these Indians as he had never seen them before – as people with homes and traditions and ways of their own. Suddenly they were no longer savages. They were people who laughed and loved and dreamed.

The above words, spoken by the narrator after Mitchell has come upon the Blackfoot settlement, might seem to be stating the obvious these days. However, they are quite potent when viewed in historical perspective. When Across the Wide Missouri was produced it was by no means a given to see some respect granted to Native American customs and ways of life. While it’s disingenuous to say that westerns before the 50s were uniformly dismissive of Indian culture, those that tended towards the kind of sympathetic treatment that grew in popularity as the decade went on were certainly thin on the ground. One could of course argue that the inclusion of the villainous character of Ironshirt shows the movie reverting to timeworn genre stereotypes, but that’s both lazy and a bit of a cheap shot. In the first place, the responsibility for the bad blood that arises can be traced back to both sides. Furthermore, it would be a misrepresentation of the times to suggest that everything was harmonious and that the thought of expelling perceived intruders from their territory never crossed the minds of the Indians. Finally, from a storytelling perspective, the presence of this character and his actions are a large part of what gives the film its emotional impact at the climax.

£10

Across the Wide Missouri must rate as a huge missed opportunity for William Wellman, though the director cannot be held responsible for the failings. The film had the makings of being one of the great frontier epics, a sweeping and intelligent analysis of cultural symbiosis. However, it appears that MGM bosses allowed themselves to be swayed by negative pre-release feedback and cut the movie down (allegedly from over two hours originally) to its current sub-80 minute running time. As such, we’re left with a slightly disjointed effort that nevertheless hints at what might have been. Despite the choppy rhythm, the development of the relationship between Mitchell and his Blackfoot maiden is a touch abrupt, there’s still a lot to admire. Wellman kept his cameras mainly outdoors to capture the splendor of the Colorado locations and, as a result of both the broadly comedic interludes and the incorporation of the landscape into the narrative, produced a film that’s reminiscent of the work of John Ford. Leaving aside the plot, the picture is a visual delight – William Mellor’s cinematography is frequently breathtaking and never less than beautiful.

Clark Gable had what could be termed a fairly lean run in westerns, with Raoul Walsh’s The Tall Men probably being his best showing in the genre. Across the Wide Missouri offered him a strong role though, one that played to his strengths and exploited his trademark roguish charm. In spite of his frequent casting in romantic parts, he had a certain goofball quality which, along with his inherent machismo, made him the ideal choice for a socially clumsy trapper. In addition, he performed very well in the handful of tender and reflective moments; no doubt he drew on his own sense of personal loss for the climactic scenes, and there’s a real dignity in the way he consoles his grief-stricken bride after the murder of her grandfather. As Kamiah, Mexican actress Maria Elena Marques is cute, spirited and gutsy. She barely utters a word of English throughout the film, save a few efforts in heavily accented pidgin, yet her feelings at any given point are abundantly clear. Her presence really drives the picture and gives it its purpose, and it’s refreshing to see the matter of fact acceptance of her relationship with Gable. After a promising start, John Hodiak’s career dipped swiftly and he died a very young man; this film was arguably his last memorable role before the decline set in fully. He had a dour thoughtfulness about him, a withdrawn sense that seems to match the character he plays ideally. There’s no real explanation given as to why Brecan left his own society to become assimilated into the Blackfoot tribe, and the actor’s own distance and remoteness adds to the air of mystery surrounding the character. Ricardo Montalban’s Ironshirt is a completely undeveloped part, although that may be due to the heavy cuts imposed by the studio, and he serves basically as a bogeyman figure. As for the supporting cast, the best work is done by Adolphe Menjou and Alan Napier.

£11

Across the Wide Missouri is now available in the US via the Warner Archive, and also on pressed disc in Europe from Warner Brothers in France. I have the French release of the film and I have to say the transfer is a very good one. The Technicolor hues come out very strongly, which is vital in a movie so heavily dependent on its outdoor photography and imagery, and the print is in pretty good condition. There are no extra features offered, and the French subtitles can be disabled from the language menu. In the final analysis, I’d have to say Across the Wide Missouri is a disappointing film. In doing so, I’m not saying it’s a poor movie, nor am I implying any criticism of the cast and crew. I feel there was a work of greater significance and cohesion here had the scissors not been applied so drastically. As it stands, this picture has fallen by the wayside somewhat when 50s westerns are discussed. Wellman was capable of producing work of considerable depth when the material was right, and the ingredients for something special were in place here. And that’s what disappoints me; we’re only seeing a fraction of the director’s vision. Even so, the movie is not without interest and is worth viewing for its visuals and its progressive storyline.

Just as an aside, it’s five years to the day since I first started blogging back on the old FilmJournal site. Time certainly flies.

 

The Bribe

The last non-western I looked at had Ava Gardner suffering in an exotic setting. The Bribe (1949) sees the same actress back sweating it out in a far-flung place, but the results are much more satisfying this time. The film is a borderline noir that employs some of the staples of the form to excellent effect. There’s also a first-rate cast who work hard, yet it’s not a movie without some problems. It opens and closes very strongly; the issue is the overpadded mid-section which ought to have had some of its excess fat trimmed off in the editing room. Even so, the finished product is still worthwhile viewing, largely due to some highly memorable visuals and a couple of fine performances.

Rigby (Robert Taylor) is a federal agent investigating a racket involving smuggled war surplus engines. He’s first seen on the balcony of his hotel room on a steamy Central American island, one of those places where even the lethargic ceiling fans seem worn down by the oppressive heat. There’s a violent storm brewing outside while an internal one is already in the process of churning up the hero’s emotions. As Rigby sweats and smokes, his weary voiceover leads us into a flashback sequence that will occupy the first half of the picture. It all starts off with one of those earnest briefings by the Feds, so beloved of post-war noir, which establishes Rigby’s undercover role. He’s been sent to the island of Carlotta to nail a gang of smugglers and his only lead is a couple of suspects, a married couple in fact. Tug Hintten (John Hodiak) and his wife Elizabeth (Ava Gardner) are two down on their luck expatriates scratching out a living on the island; he’s an ex-pilot with a drink problem, reduced to slumming it as a bartender, while she sings in the same night club. Almost inevitably, Elizabeth is drawn to Rigby, his quiet assurance contrasting sharply with the drunken pessimism of her weak and ineffectual husband. The problem is that the feeling is mutual and Rigby slowly finds himself torn between his sense of professionalism and his desire for Elizabeth. To further complicate matters, it’s soon apparent that Hintten is not working alone. Carwood (Vincent Price) has the appearance of just another tourist but he’s awfully keen on making Rigby’s acquaintance, and Bealer (Charles Laughton) is one of those rumpled chisellers who always have an angle to pitch. Suddenly, Rigby’s life has become very complicated – he knows these four are all bound together as conspirators and he knows his duty, but his attraction to Elizabeth is skewing his judgement and is also being used by the villains as a lever to encourage him to turn a blind eye. As the storm breaks and the flashback leads us to the present, it’s clear that we’ve reach the critical moment. Rigby stands at a moral crossroads; does he take the path of honour and do his job or does he follow the call of his heart? If he’s to choose the former then he has to find some means of doing so without damning the woman he’s falling in love with. Now this is an interesting setup, but the development of the romance slows the pace of the film badly. It’s only in the second half, when matters are forced to a head, that the movie picks up speed again and coasts along towards a quite literally explosive finale amid the carnival celebrations on the island.

For a man with such an extensive filmography, Robert Z Leonard is a director whose work I’m not familiar with. A quick glance through his credits explains that though – he specialized in movies which hold little or no interest for me. However, he, along with cameraman Joseph Ruttenberg, does a fine job of blending classical noir iconography with a melodramatic crime story. Even some decidedly turgid romantic moments are made all the more bearable by the clever use of shadows and light filtered through louvred doors. The fact that The Bribe was an MGM production might give one pause for though too. It may well have been the studio that best typified the heyday of Hollywood, but I wouldn’t rank it among my favourites. The house style usually demanded a kind of populist gloss that tended to preclude any notion of realism or grit. In the case of this movie though, the artificiality that marked out MGM actually works in its favour, that heightened sense of unreality adding to the exotic flavour of the setting. From a purely visual perspective, The Bribe looks splendid. The biggest issue is the way the script allows the essentially uneventful middle of the story to drag on for far too long.

I mentioned in the introduction that there are a couple of fine performances, but I’ll work up to that gradually. I found John Hodiak’s work the weakest of the five main players. His first scene where he’s supposed to be drunk felt amateurish and unconvincing, like a guy who never touched a drop doing an impression of a lush. However, he spends most of the remainder of the movie laid up in his sick-bed so there’s no opportunity to see whether he could have added another dimension to his role. It has to be said that Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner made for an extremely attractive leading couple, and they do have a certain chemistry on-screen. Gardner looks breathtakingly beautiful in some shots and it’s clear that this was a woman capable of making any man reappraise his ethics. Taylor was an actor who I think gets slated too often by critics. His looks often meant that he was underestimated, but age and maturity came to his rescue. His post-war work gets better with each passing year as his tough reserve was increasingly reflected in his features. I reckon his western roles bring out the best in him but he also made some first class noir pictures too; The Bribe may not be his finest, but it’s not bad either. Vincent Price was another who improved as the years passed, and his role as the slimy and conniving Carwood represents a step along that path. Right at the top of the heap though is Charles Laughton, giving a performance that’s slyly captivating. His perpetually unshaven Bealer is a clever combination of the sleazy and the pitiful. In a role that could easily have become deeply unattractive, his expressive features and carefully modulated voice create a character who pulls off the not inconsiderable feat of being simultaneously repulsive and sympathetic.

A while back, I was on the point of ordering the Warner Archive version of The Bribe, but then noticed that the film was also available on pressed disc from Spain. So, I ended up buying the release from Absolute. From reading online comments and looking at screencaps, I think the Spanish release is broadly comparable to the R1 disc. The film hasn’t undergone any restoration and there are minor scratches and marks on the print. Still, there are no serious issues and the contrast and clarity are generally strong. Absolute provide the theatrical trailer and the English soundtrack only; the Spanish subtitles can be disabled via the setup menu. There’s also a booklet of viewing notes included, in Spanish of course, that features the original poster art and lots of attractive stills. The film is an entertaining  yet imperfect slice of noir exotica. Ultimately, the characters, with the possible exception of Carwood, revert to traditional morality and thus dilute the darkness that the script flirts with. It may not be full-blown noir and the script could use a bit of tightening but it’s well worth seeing, if only for Gardner’s beauty and Laughton’s low-life charm.

Desert Fury

£24

Can a technicolor movie be considered a film noir? I think so. Sure, the form lends itself better to the harshness of black and white photography where the light and shadows can be more skilfully manipulated. Having said that, film noir is more than just a photographic style – it’s a style of film making. To me, noir is a combination of many elements (theme, character, time, location, photography etc.) and the more boxes we can check, the closer we come to defining it. Photography is, undoubtedly, one of the major elements that needs to be present – I just feel that photographic style rather than color vs B&W is the clincher. As such, I feel Desert Fury (1947) is most definitely noir. Although the movie is shot in blinding technicolor, the themes and characterization place it firmly in the realm of dark cinema.

Paula Haller (Lizabeth Scott) returns to Chuckawalla, the small desert town where she was raised by her widowed mother Fritzi (Mary Astor). Paula is shown to be an outsider right from the off, snubbed by the locals due to her mother’s ownership of the town’s gambling joint. The only friend she has is Tom Hanson (Burt Lancaster), a former cowboy now working as town deputy after an accident put an end to his former career. Paula’s arrival back home coincides with the reappearance of a shady character called Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak), whose wife died years earlier in a mysterious road accident. When Paula falls for Bendix a whole hornet’s nest of passion is stirred up as Fritzi, Hanson, and Bendix’s partner Johnny (Wendell Corey) all, for their own reasons, try to keep them apart. What tilts this into noir, rather than straight melodrama, is the twisted nature of the relationships involved. Paula is said to bear a strong resemblance to Bendix’s late wife; Fritzi and Bendix were formerly lovers; there’s more than a hint of jealous competition between the two female leads; and there are strong suggestions that the relationship of Bendix and Johnny might involve some sexual undercurrents – heady stuff indeed for 1947. There’s also a nice cyclical form to the movie, which both opens and closes with characters staring over the rails of a bridge at the site of a fatal crash.

£5

This is a picture that’s dominated by the performances of the women. Mary Astor is near perfect casting as the worldly and tough dame who rules the roost in a man’s world, yet struggles to tame the impulses of her headstrong daughter. Lizabeth Scott was born to star in films noir, and she does the business here as the troubled heroine with the whiskey voice who has to learn a few hard lessons. Burt Lancaster’s role is a bit of a thankless one; he seems to do little more than cruise up and down the desert highway, hoping to run into Scott on her return from Hodiak’s rented pad. Hodiak himself gives an interesting performance as man who’s clearly not all he seems. His initial detachment and suppressed aggression hint at some dark secret, and he gradually descends further into a kind of manic vindictiveness until his flaws and weakness are finally exposed by the sly and knowing Corey. Director Lewis Allen makes sure everything moves along smoothly and makes excellent use of the harshly beautiful locations. A word also for cinematographer Charles Lang, who makes those same desolate landscapes positively pop off the screen.

Desert Fury is available on DVD in R4 from a company called DV1. Their disc looks fantastic with strong color and detail, although there are some speckles and damage marks here and there. It is, however, totally barebones with not even subs offered. On the plus side there are some interesting liner notes  printed on the reverse of the cover – and it should be available cheaply. For me, this was pretty much a blind buy and I ended up enjoying it a lot. Recommended.