A Left and a Right

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

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

First up is Golden Gloves from 1940

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gordon Gates

Autumn Leaves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These Thousand Hills

Innocent? Well, that depends on who the jury is. I’ll tell you a couple of things I ain’t guilty of. I ain’t prayed on Sunday. Bought cows cheap on Monday. I ain’t broke my word. I ain’t climbed up high on somebody else’s back or thought of myself better than another man. I ain’t double-crossed a friend or made a little tin god out of money. Sure, I’m innocent. I’m as innocent as you. Or ain’t you boys innocent?

Dreams, and loss, and discovery, these ideas amount to a fine framework around which to construct a drama. If they are not constants, then they are at least experiences common to all of us, situations which therefore resonate because of their universality. One could trace the course of many a life by following the line or arc punctuated and described by them, which is precisely what occurs over the hour and a half running time of These Thousand Hills (1959).

This is the story of Lat Evans (Don Murray), whom we first encounter signing on with  a cattle outfit and chafing at the bit to get ahead in the world. His is a poor background, and an unhappy one too, shaped by a father whose lack of professional success saw him turn to unbending religion and ruthless discipline. This has worked its way into the heart and soul of Lat, forging an inner steel that produces the kind of resilience necessary to rise in the world, but also encourages another colder hardness, the type that is capable of shattering the most intimate relationships. While Lat is without question the principle figure in the affair, those dreams and losses and discoveries I opened by speaking about also relate to others in the picture. Tom Ping (Stuart Whitman) is direct in his pursuit of a simple philosophy that life is for living, exuberant and reckless where Lat is driven and calculating, a man whose heart will always overrule his judgement. And finally, we have Callie (Lee Remick), a saloon girl possessed of a natural compassion and charity. Her love is of the simple and uncomplicated variety, and it founders on the rocks of sanctimony and abuse.

All that may sound like a rather grim business, and there’s certainly grief and tragedy on display. Nevertheless, those elements serves a purpose, without them the film’s central message about the triumph of the human spirit would be diminished. By the end of the 1950s the western had attained artistic synergy, a place where theme, story, and visuals all came together to form something splendid. Salvation and redemption are basic ingredients of all human endeavor, they are the prize sought by all and the way these movies integrated the concepts into their fabric with such subtlety remains one of their most enduring strengths. I haven’t read the A B Guthrie novel which this movie is  based on but the film Richard Fleischer directed and Alfred Hayes scripted is a fine piece of work. The Colorado locations are stunning at times and those magnificent vistas form a suitably epic backdrop for this tale of towering ambition and high ideals. Fleischer made some very good and visually striking movies in the 50’s, exploring all the possibilities afforded by the CinemaScope image and his use of rich, vibrant colors is immensely attractive.

The character of Lat Evans isn’t an easy one to portray on screen, requiring a maturing process to take place not only over a relatively short running time but in a fairly complex way too. It’s to Don Murray’s great credit that he manages to pull it off successfully, the shifting of his priorities and the corresponding drift of loyalties and allegiances never appears jarring or affected. What’s more, the nature of the man he plays is layered at all times – enthused yet reserved, ambitious and loyal while also prone to hypocrisy. When his moment of truth finally arrives and he heeds the voice of his own conscience, although arguably it’s a two stage affair, it’s never less than convincing. Stuart Whitman is also on good form as the flighty friend and turns in a performance of great charm. His best scene is the one where he shyly asks Lat to be best man at his wedding to saloon hostess Jen (Jean Willes), and he finds himself rebuffed by his friend’s puritanical propriety. His journey from confusion and hurt through to explicit anger is so well realized, and extremely effective.

There are two significant female roles, those played by Lee Remick and Patricia Owens. Remick got the plum part, that of the woman who loves Lat unconditionally and suffers the greatest indignities for her trouble. It’s her actions that set Lat on the initial path to success and, despite all she must bear, she is not only the one who triggers his ultimate redemption but proves herself to be his physical savior as well. Patricia Owens has a less sympathetic part; she comes over as somewhat spoiled and priggish, but there’s more to her character than that, which is made clear by the end. Richard Egan is at his callous and brutal best as the villainous Jehu. Cheating, conniving, provocative and sadistic, he uses his confidence and physical presence well and the build up to the final confrontation (shot amid the garish crimson decor of the saloon) has him sneering and positively dripping malignancy.  Among the supporting cast Albert Dekker and Royal Dano offer reassuringly recognizable faces.

These Thousand Hills was put out on DVD many years ago by Fox and it still looks strong and attractive – the studio was generally releasing a lot of exceptionally fine transfers back then – in crisp and colorful CinemaScope. I’m not aware of the movie ever having been released on Blu-ray anywhere and, given the ownership of the rights now, that does not seem likely to happen in the near future. As for the movie itself, I don’t believe those dreams mentioned above are fully realized by anyone while all of the main characters experience loss, and innocence is probably the chief casualty in this regard. Still, all of this is eclipsed by discovery and it applies to practically everyone involved, though most tellingly in the case of Lat. The epiphany he undergoes is what adds meaning, bears out the words of his old boss about nobody finishing up the same as they started out, and leaves the viewer with a sense of closure. The final year of the western’s greatest decade saw a number of superior movies produced (and this is true too across a range of genres if we’re being honest) and These Thousand Hills slots neatly in among them. I never cease to be impressed by the sheer richness of the western in these years and the apparently effortless artistry of those working within the genre. A superb film and highly recommended.

Fire Down Below

Romance, revenge and renewal – introduce a movie from the mid or late 1950s with those words and the chances are people will think you’re talking about a western. I guess there’s a point that could be made here about those themes being more a reflection of the era than a specific genre, even if that genre seemed to favor them more or treat them with greater sensitivity. Fire Down Below (1957) is certainly not a western – if it’s necessary to find a label, then I suppose it could be called a kind of Caribbean adventure/melodrama – but it does take a good long look at the three words I used as an opening. Of course it also follows the cardinal rule of moviemaking by ensuring this is woven into a consistently entertaining story.

Many a good yarn has originated in a bar, and this one essentially begins there. Tony (Jack Lemmon)  and Felix (Robert Mitchum) are two drifters, the kind of figures who seemed to abound in mid-20th century movies, men who have either lost something in life and are casting around for it, or who have never possessed it in the first place. A combination of curiosity, disillusionment and aimlessness has drawn these two to the Caribbean, and fate has thrown them together as joint owners of a clapped out boat. Their morals are, shall we say, flexible and they’re not overly particular about how they earn a dollar. So it is that Irena (Rita Hayworth) comes into their lives, a stateless person hailing from somewhere in the Baltic and now in need of someone to smuggle her through immigration. While the two men are friends they are very different characters, Tony being a romantic idealist whereas Felix is jaded to the core. The effect on these two of sharing a confined space with an attractive woman is as powerful as one might expect. Enthusiasm, desire, envy and bitterness all make an appearance as the tensions simmer in the tropical heat and eventually boil over into conflict and betrayal. The upshot of it all is that Tony swears vengeance on his former friend, but there will be a further trial to be endured before any form of closure can be achieved.

I don’t  imagine it’s any coincidence that the ship carrying Tony back  for his longed for reckoning is named Ulysses. Just like the hero of Greek mythology, his is a long journey home, not quite a decade perhaps but it certainly develops into a supreme challenge and, as with all fables, there is a lesson to be learnt. Vengeance is a wonderful narrative device, it drives characters toward a confrontation, frequently with their own personal demons, and the better tales leave it in no doubt that it’s an unworthy goal. I think Fire Down Below is one of these better tales and the way the conflict is ultimately resolved lays bare the lie at the heart of the quest for revenge. Personally, I think it’s hugely satisfying that after the great conflagration, both emotional and physical, everything is settled not through violence but with a simple kiss. It’s somehow fitting that it is Irena who emerges Athena-like to restore harmony.

Robert Parrish was in the middle of a very strong run here, and would follow this up with two exceptional westerns, Saddle the Wind with Robert Taylor and The Wonderful Country which reunited him with Mitchum. This was a rich period for the director, blending timeless stories, attractive visuals and the kind of themes that defined an era of filmmaking. The movie looks very good and makes fine use of its locations, as shot by Desmond Dickinson,  but it’s not just a glossy travelogue. Parrish was adept at these stories of intertwined relationships and crises of conscience, and he seemed to raise his game when presented with the right material.

I said at the beginning that the movie could be characterized in three words and it’s also true that it all hinges on three different people. Jack Lemmon had already won himself an Oscar in John Ford’s Mister Roberts, and Fire Down Below was another step on the path to growing stardom. He’s a good choice for the mid-West rover; he had that fresh charm and impishness about him at this stage that made his romanticism believable, as well as the subsequent shattering of illusions and his thirst for revenge. The only point where I felt skepticism taking over was at the notion of him going head to head with a bull like Mitchum in a stand-up brawl. Mitchum is his typical cocksure and swaggering self, looking askance at the follies of the world and, you feel sure, not sparing himself any of that acerbic assessment.

However, everything ultimately depends on Rita Hayworth’s Irena. She provides the motivation for all the drama and passion, and I think the honesty of her performance is a big plus. This was her return to the big screen after an absence of four years and, by all accounts, a truly rotten and abusive marriage to Dick Haymes. She wasn’t yet 40 years old but she had about her the aura of one acquainted with disappointment, a woman grown aware of both the pros and cons attached to her beauty. I’m back with honesty again, but there is a raw frankness to her admission at one stage that she has debased herself in life, and the need this woman has to recapture some sense of self-respect is pivotal. Her great triumph, dramatically and spiritually, is sealed right at the end – one simple action serves to restore her own self-esteem, redeem her lover,  and grant a precious gift to his rival, dignity.

I’ve concentrated a lot on the three main characters here but I think the supporting cast of Bernard Lee, Bonar Colleano, Herbert Lom, Edric Connor, Anthony Newley and Eric Pohlmann deserve a brief mention at the very least.

I have an old DVD of Fire Down Below which was released many years ago and it still looks quite strong with rich colors and an attractive CinemaScope image. I understand it’s recently been included in a keenly priced 12 movie set of Hayworth’s films on Blu-ray via Mill Creek, and I imagine it will look even better in high definition. To date, I don’t believe the film has had an official release in the UK, an omission I would have thought one of the independent labels might seek to correct. Anyway, for the time being, I’ll leave you with Jeri Southern’s rendition of the theme tune:

Canyon River

Back in the saddle. It’s been a while now since I’ve featured a western on this site, not that I’ve been consciously avoiding them, it’s just that other material has been occupying my thoughts as far as posting is concerned. Added to that is the fact I like to vary the content, to try to keep staleness at bay if nothing else. Anyway, I’ve found myself watching, and indeed writing up, a number of CinemaScope movies lately – others will follow in the weeks ahead. The first of those to make an appearance is probably the least of them, which is not to say it’s a bad movie. Canyon River (1956) is perhaps unremarkable yet it’s also entertaining and, what’s even more important, quietly satisfying in the way so many 1950s westerns manage to be.

There can be few things more satisfying than seeing a bullying loudmouth such as Robert J Wilke’s character have his pistol spectacularly kicked out of his hand and then get laid out by two well aimed haymakers. The man meting out this punishment in the opening scene is Steve Patrick (George Montgomery), a Wyoming rancher who may be facing financial difficulties but isn’t taking anything lying down. No, this is a man with a plan, albeit a plan which plenty of people will tell him he’s crazy to attempt. In brief, he wants to introduce a new cross breed of cattle, something which will involve a big gamble on his part and necessitate driving a herd along the Oregon Trail in the opposite direction and out of season. Aside from the hardships to be faced, there’s also the challenge of finding a crew willing to go along with this, not to mention the fact that the man he considers his closest friend (Peter Graves) is secretly plotting to take both his life and his herd. If all that didn’t represent sufficient difficulty, there’s also the matter of a young widow (Marcia Henderson) and her son (Richard Eyer) to consider.

What Canyon River presents is a fairly standard trail drive western, blending in that familiar yet always welcome 1950s focus on redemption and the potential for a fresh start. The redemptive aspect is related mainly (though not exclusively) to the greed and betrayal of Peter Graves’ character. I’m not entering spoiler territory here as the treachery is revealed to the viewer very early on and the knowledge of that adds a layer of suspense to the plot. How, or indeed whether, Graves will redeem himself is not resolved until late in proceedings and in the meantime another thread of redemption – more straightforward this time – is explored. This concerns the crew hired by Montgomery to undertake his unconventional drive. Well, they are an unconventional group, headed up by Alan Hale Jr and consisting of a ragtag bunch of criminals and ex-convicts. For them, this represents an opportunity to find a path back into society, a means of escaping destructive get-rich-quick schemes and winning back some degree of self-respect. Last but by no means least, the whole affair offers a chance of a fresh start for Montgomery himself along with Henderson and Eyer.

Canyon River, from Daniel B Ullman’s script, is a remake of the 1951 Bill Elliott western The Longhorn. Not having seen the earlier version, I can’t comment on that or make any comparisons but I do like this iteration. A number of films directed by Harmon Jones have been featured here in the past and I’ve found them all quite enjoyable. While this is a modest picture overall there is plenty to admire, from the attractive widescreen imagery, shot by director of photography Ellsworth Fredericks, to the feelgood positivity of it all, and that latter aspect is something I think we can all do with sampling in these stubbornly trying times.

A big part of what makes Canyon River work so well is the presence of George Montgomery. He imbues the part of Steve Patrick with an enthusiasm and verve that is infectious. However, what is even more important is the generosity and openness of the character; this is the key to the success of the central theme. It’s his simple faith in himself and human nature in general that draws in, inspires, and indeed shames some of the other characters. The sheer likeability of the man makes Graves’ betrayal of him appear even less appealing. I liked Marcia Henderson’s work in Back to God’s Country and she brings great warmth to her role in Canyon River, making the romance which blossoms between her and Montgomery especially sweet. This also applies to Richard Eyer, who is wonderful as the hero worshiping youngster. At one point, after a hard day on the trail, the boy quietly falls asleep by the fireside and Alan Hale’s reformed outlaw spots this.  Demonstrating unexpected tenderness, he carefully picks him up and gently deposits him in the wagon; it’s a fleeting moment but a telling one and a delightful little grace note.

Hale is extremely engaging all the way through and his gratitude is in stark contrast to the jealousy and duplicity of Peter Graves. Graves does fine work portraying this, and he also succeeds in getting across the inner turmoil of the character as the doubts and guilt slowly grow within him. Other villainous parts are taken by perennial louse Robert J Wilke, whom I spoke of above, as well as a somewhat underused Jack Lambert and Walter Sande. I sometimes feel no western would be complete were Ray Teal not to appear at some point, and he obligingly pops up as the cattleman who sells his herd to Montgomery.

Canyon River was an Allied Artists production and therefore it can be found on DVD via the Warner Archive. It’s a reasonably good looking transfer, in the correct aspect ratio and boasting strong, attractive colors. As far as I know, there are other copies available on assorted European labels. I remember coming across this movie on TV years ago and thinking at the time that it was passable but nothing special. Revisiting the movie recently, I came away with a far more favorable impression. Nevertheless, I don’t want to oversell it and have people thinking it’s some unmined gem that has just been unearthed. It is no world beater yet the mood, the message, and some good performances make for a very pleasurable 80 minutes of entertainment.

House of Strangers

Back in 2015 I looked at Broken Lance, a superior western and a remake of an earlier movie. I remarked at the time that I preferred the later version of the story and that’s still the case. Nevertheless, House of Strangers (1949), the original adaptation of Jerome Weidman’s novel, is an excellent piece of work when viewed in its own right. All versions and adaptations of stories bring something different to the table: the sensibilities of the filmmakers involved, themes added or removed, highlighted or suppressed. Where Broken Lance broadened and extended the scope of the material, House of Strangers retains a tighter focus overall.

A crowded sidewalk, bustling and bursting with life, and amid it all the eye is drawn to one solitary figure making his way through the vibrant mass, a detached and determined figure. He pauses before the imposing facade of a bank, the guard inside eyeing him fishily through the polished plate glass. This is Max Monetti (Richard Conte), once a sharp and arrogant lawyer but now just another ex-con. Actually, he’s a bit more than that; the bank was once the domain of his late father Gino Monetti (Edward G Robinson) before it was taken over by three of his sons, and before Max spent seven years as a guest of the state for jury tampering. Some of the brashness is still there though, and it’s enough to worry his siblings. It’s here that the lengthy flashback which occupies most the running time kicks in, showing how a family turned upon itself and slowly disintegrated, how rivalry and dissatisfaction became the seeds of hatred, how an old woman’s heart was broken and how a once grand home was transformed into a mausoleum to pernicious pride.

As in the image above, the past is forever peering over the shoulders of the characters. And it’s not just the malign spirit of Gino Monetti haunting his sons and poisoning their hearts, for even the old man in life was haunted by the specter of penury and subservience. The whole movie concerns itself with characters racing to keep a step ahead of their past, be it the stifling “old world” traditions that Gino professes to be desperate to throw off while apparently reveling in their trappings or another generation’s desire to be free of the too firm hold of an overcritical patriarch. Underpinning all of this is the concept of revenge or retribution, and the corrosive effect it has for all who drink from that particular cup.

I opened by speaking of a narrower focus, and I feel House of Strangers actively seeks to present a sense of restrictiveness. Instead of showing family as a symbol of fertility, it offers up a view of a stagnant and suffocating household, and I think it’s no coincidence that much of the action is rooted in the Monetti house and the old bank. Both structures have an old-fashioned ambience, a workplace where the sons are kept firmly in place – literally caged in the case of the elder brother Joe (Luther Adler) – and with limited options, and a home that is almost overpowering in the sheer weight and oppressiveness of its decor. The contrast with the light, spacious and airy apartment of Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward), the one person in the movie with an outward-looking perspective, and the one who represents the chance for a clean break with the past and new start on the west coast, is marked and unmistakable.

Susan Hayward’s presence adds much to this movie. Her drive, allure, and most of all her infectious self-confidence represent the best hope of salvation for Richard Conte’s Max. The frank and witty dialogue those two trade is a highlight, giving an edge to their passion and, in Conte’s case, allowing his character to become much more rounded. Joseph L Mankiewicz, who apparently had an uncredited hand in the writing alongside Philip Yordan, was noted for the use of sophisticated dialogue and it’s a real boon in this picture. The visuals and themes are well handled and well realized, but the smartness of the script gives everything extra vigor.

Richard Conte could always be relied on when you needed someone tough and streetwise, and he starts out incredibly sure of himself, unpleasantly so in fact. It’s largely through his interaction with Hayward though that he unbends gradually, looking out instead of in, realizing what to embrace and what to reject. Edward G Robinson plays a man it’s hard to like – even in his more expansive and beneficent moods there’s a shade of self-importance about him. As the story progresses, this latter quality develops, eventually running to bitterness and, ultimately, spite and vindictiveness. With a trio such as Robinson, Hayward and Conte headlining, there’s not a lot of space left for others to make their mark. That said, Luther Adler is subtly impressive, enduring the pettiness and humiliations as he broods and nurtures a deep resentment. In support Paul Valentine and Efrem Zimbalist Jr are the other two browbeaten offspring, while the imposing Hope Emerson seems an unlikely mother to the diminutive Debra Paget.

House of Strangers was released on DVD years ago as part of the Fox Film Noir line and the image is pleasing if not perfect, with a few trailers and a commentary track by Foster Hirsch as supplements. All told, this is the kind of highly polished picture one would expect from 20th Century Fox and Joseph L Mankiewicz. The shift to a western setting allowed Broken Lance to successfully explore other ideas and make it a more satisfying experience. However, I like to examine every movie on its own merits and I feel House of Strangers deserves to be praised for what it is rather than disparaged for what it isn’t.

Scene of the Crime

It’s arguable that, at its peak, RKO was the studio that appeared most comfortable producing films noir. If, on the other hand, you were to ask which of the majors was the one whose aesthetic felt least suited to that characteristically bleak style of moviemaking, the chances are MGM would come out on top. Everything changes though, and by the tail  end of the 1940s MGM was moving towards a different style, and as Dore Schary the former head of production at the aforementioned RKO took up the reins he brought a flavor of his previous home with him. Scene of the Crime (1949) is an entertaining piece of work from this transitional period for the studio, a superficially soft-boiled noir that boasts some surprising toughness just below the surface.

The 1950s would see film noir focus on organized crime with increasing regularity but nothing happens with a flash and puff of smoke. It was a gradual process and the drift away from the compromised individual as protagonist to wider society and its institutions wasn’t so much dramatic as stealthy. An urban street at night (or a backlot representation of one anyway) is a typical noir motif, as is the crash of gunfire, the lurch and fall of a fatally wounded body, the words of a gunman rapped out as abruptly and tersely as the bark of his revolver, and the snarling motor of the getaway car. And all that’s left is the torn remains of a man clinging to the sidewalk. The man in question was a cop, a detective in the wrong place at the wrong time, but with an unexplained and bulky roll of bills in his pocket. Questions naturally arise, not only with respect the identity of the killer but the source of the cash too. The answers to those questions will be ferreted out by Mike Conovan (Van Johnson), a somewhat stereotypical detective with a somewhat unusual  private life; he’s married to a glamorous ex-model (Arlene Dahl) and gets to hobnob with the smart set when he’s not combing the gutter for suspects. He’s one of those cops who’s wedded to the job as much as he is to his wife and she’s not that happy about the whole deal. So there’s this background tension simmering away, the domestic pressures adding a layer of conflict, but it’s a tension of the MacGuffin variety, of much more concern to the characters than it is to the viewer. Still, there is tension to engage us, the painstaking progress of the investigation, the careful fitting together of the disparate pieces as a picture slowly forms before our eyes, one that’s neatly embroidered by the presence of a quirky snitch (Norman Lloyd) and a seductive stripper (Gloria De Haven).

Earlier this year, I wrote about another Roy Rowland directed film noir Rogue Cop (which ended up being not only the most commented piece of the year but of all time on this site) and noted how the visuals had grown brighter and starker than had been the case earlier in the classic cycle. There’s a touch of that in Scene of the Crime but Rowland and cinematographer Paul Vogel still mix in the more traditional look from time to time, a stakeout with a flickering neon sign outside the window springs to mind, and then there’s that toughness I alluded to at the beginning. While the ultimate fate of Norman Lloyd’s memorable stool pigeon isn’t shown explicitly, it is described and it is grim. There’s a hard edged fist fight with one of the prime suspects, the climactic shoot out that ends up brutally and painfully, and of course there’s also a delightfully sour and cynical double cross which adds some spice to one of the more significant plot strands.I don’t know how much of this is derived from the original source material but I do know that screenwriter Charles Schnee was no slouch and was responsible for turning out some extraordinarily good scripts (They Live by Night, The Furies, Born to Be Bad, Westward the Women, The Bad and the Beautiful, Two Weeks in Another Town) in his relatively short life. In the final analysis though, there will be those who will say Scene of the Crime is essentially film noir lite, pointing to the lack of grit in the lead’s home life and the upbeat ending. I’ll not dispute any of that, but I will say that none of it troubles me much as I’m not especially keen on any extra helping of nihilism at the end of this particular year.

I don’t suppose Van Johnson would be anyone’s first pick for a noir lead, but he was nothing if not versatile and I have to say I’ve always found him very watchable in a range of movies from Brigadoon through to The Caine Mutiny. Given the nature of his role in Scene of the Crime, he’s actually a pretty good piece of casting. He’s very comfortable in the society scenes and equally convincing doing his dogged detective routine or slugging it out with hoodlums. I reckon Arlene Dahl got a bit of raw deal with this one though. Her part is barely developed and she’s not given much opportunity to do anything other than look glamorous or vexed, or both. I was watching her in No Questions Asked the other week and I feel she had something more to get her teeth into in that one. In a year that has seen us lose some big names from the golden age of cinema it’s kind of comforting to watch Ms Dahl share screen time with Norman Lloyd and think they’re both still around at 95 and 106 respectively. There’s very good support from an enigmatic Gloria De Haven, as well as solid and dependable work from John McIntire, Leon Ames, Anthony Caruso and Jerome Cowan among others.

Scene of the Crime can be found as part of the Warner Archive and looks quite good. The movie may not have the diamond heart of the more revered films noir but it is an engaging little picture that won’t disappoint either. Check it out if you can.

This will be the last post of  2020 for me, an odd year for sure. It’s been undeniably tragic for some, challenging for all, and yet it should be remembered that adversity ultimately breeds strength and positivity. From a purely selfish perspective, I have to say that one of the bright spots has come from seeing the site grow in popularity as never before. None of that would be possible without the marvelous contributions of all the knowledgeable and enthusiastic visitors it has been my pleasure to play host to. So let me say thank you to all of you, and may you all enjoy a happy, healthy and fulfilling New Year in 2021.

Mogambo

Doing the right thing – a trite phrase in some respects, and yet it also goes straight to the heart of the personal dilemmas which form the basis of and indeed drive so many dramatic works. Ultimately, what does it mean to “do the right thing”, or to “go noble” as one of the characters in Mogambo (1953) puts it? Isn’t this just one aspect of our human condition, that perennial struggle for primacy between head and heart? Of course there’s an argument to be made that neither head nor heart can act entirely independently, and perhaps the way this movie resolves the internal conflicts which confront its characters is a reflection of that.

The notion of the fish out of water is a useful and much used dramatic device and whole movies have been hung on this particular peg. Nevertheless, it can be a tiresome conceit if the filmmaker decides to rely on it alone. John Ford was nothing if not a great artist and therefore had the wisdom to know that while this could act as a hook initially, far more substantial morsels were necessary to build a story around. So it is that Eloise Kelly (Ava Gardner) is introduced, turning up in the East African bush where the sass and sex appeal of Manhattan are of, let’s say, limited effect. It appears she has been stood up in style by a high class date, and the philosophical way she accepts this suggests that she’s no stranger to such setbacks. Stranded in an alien environment, with no way out till the next boat arrives in a week’s time, she decides to make the best of it. Making the best of it includes trying to find something useful to do and hopefully avoiding the censure of her grudging host, game trapper Vic Marswell (Clark Gable). Nature has a habit of taking its course in even the most civilized and sophisticated of settings so it ought to come as no surprise when wilder climes hurry that process along a little. To cut to the chase, Kelly and Marswell embark on a brief affair, but only one of them is looking any further at this stage. When the supply boat arrives it brings a couple of green innocents on a scientific expedition, and signals an abrupt end to Kelly’s dreams. The young couple are the Nordleys, Donald (Donald Sinden) and his wife Linda (Grace Kelly), and it won’t be long before Marswell’s eye is roving once more. However, it would be a dull and disappointing business if that’s all there were to it; either the tides of the river or maybe the more persuasive tides of fate see the old steamboat run aground and an unexpected reunion effected.

The consensus view on remakes seems to be that they are rarely a patch on the originals. Whether or not one subscribes to that approach, it’s generally advisable to assess everything on its own merits. Mogambo is a reworking of the 1932 movie Red Dust, which also featured a young Clark Gable in the lead. Even though it’s been many years since I viewed the original I feel secure in my view that Ford’s retread is by far the better film. Of course the fact that it’s Ford’s hand guiding it makes all the difference. His little quiet touches, his grace notes, are everywhere; from the resigned drop of Gardner’s head as she watches Gable walk off to greet his new clients, to the way Gable himself contemplates his smouldering cigarette as his own chances dwindle correspondingly. There is too the seamless blending of landscape and environment into the narrative, with key moments played out against the backdrop of moonlit lakes and waterfalls. Mogambo was made in the middle of a run of movies for Ford where this professed “director of westerns” avoided the genre with which his name has been so closely linked. From Rio Grande in 1950 until The Searchers in 1956 he didn’t touch westerns, but there remains something of the spirit of that genre on show here. Ford was always drawn to the intimacy of frontier living, the  minutiae of existence of those living on the edge of civilization, particularly in the Cavalry trilogy. Mogambo recreates some of that in the comfortable and companionable remoteness of Marswell’s lodge, while the beauty and hazards of the wilderness become apparent as the safari gets underway. And underpinning it all is the threat to existential connectedness, the essential symbiosis that links everything, which is posed by the arrival of the civilized Nordleys; this is quietly underscored by the frustration felt by Gable when he finds himself forced to kill animals on two separate occasions in order to save the lives of these two interlopers.

In addition to Ford’s motifs and sensibility, a more mature and experienced Gable adds another dimension to the movie. There is that gruff individualism that he so often traded on but it’s tempered somewhat by his playing a man who has lived too long in isolation, detached from emotional connections and therefore able to bond freely only on the most superficial levels. Still, those extra years add depth to his portrayal, the passage of time, or his awareness of it at least, seem to give a greater urgency to his character’s hunger, that knowledge of the need to grasp whatever opportunities come his way before it’s too late. In fact, as the story unfolds it is possible to read the internal conflict he’s experiencing, that head and heart business again, where he’s forever trying to balance some yearning for fulfillment against his personal code of ethics. In so doing, he runs the risk of losing the greater prize.

When all is said and done, the movie really belongs to Ava Gardner. Gable was top billed and, as I’ve said, he does excellent work, but the screen genuinely sparkles whenever Gardner is there. She is the main driver of events and acts as the emotional core. It’s a superb performance by an actress at the very top of her game and the height of her allure – I’ve been delving into that purple patch she struck in the mid 1950s after having recently enjoyed a rewatch of The Sun Also Rises. This was her third time playing opposite Gable, after The Hucksters and the extremely disappointing Lone Star, and it’s far and away the best of their collaborations. Her role played to her strengths, her earthy free-spirited sensuality is always to the fore, but also presented her with more subtle challenges. An example of this is the way she gets across very clearly the illusory nature of her free and easy demeanor. There’s a beautifully telling moment just after she embarks on the steamer where she’s pacing back and forth on the deck in front of a cage containing a captured leopard, the animal inside mirroring her moves. It’s evident that Gardner is trapped too, confined in life by the limited choices available to her. Despite this, she remains the most positive aspect of the movie, representing Gable’s chance for redemption and fulfillment – she is the siren whose song doesn’t lure a man to his doom but instead leads him toward salvation.

Grace Kelly had just come off High Noon but her biggest and most famous roles were still ahead of her. Her character is immature, a girl playing at being a woman, self-centered and plagued by indecision. Kelly nails the breathlessness and deception but is limited somewhat by the one dimensional nature of the role. Donald Sinden has the rather thankless part of the cuckold but does elicit sympathy due to his forthrightness and inherent dignity. Further support is provided by Philip Stainton as Gable’s plummy-voiced friend, Eric Pohlmann as a lazy and vulgar drunk, and a quiet Denis O’Dea, whose wordless confessional scene with Gardner provides another of those delightfully Fordian grace notes.

To the best of my knowledge, Mogambo has still not had a Blu-ray release. The old DVD has been around for many years now and is pretty solid, though this is the kind of movie which could look spectacular with a bit of a cleanup and a HD upgrade. It may not rank among John Ford’s more celebrated films but it’s long been a favorite of mine and one I am always keen to recommend.

A Bullet Is Waiting

I’ve spoken of the importance of titles before, and I do like to see a punchy and enticing one used. A Bullet Is Waiting (1954) has a lot going for it: it promises suspense, danger and action, it raises questions in one’s mind and attracts the attention. Is it perhaps more than a little misleading though? In a sense it’s not, as it does allude to a very real fear motivating one of the leads. On the other hand, I know that when I first heard of it I had mental images of a western or a noir-shaded thriller. Yet that’s not really what ends up presented on the screen as it’s essentially a rustic melodrama with action/thriller elements backing up a tale of romance and renewal.

Openings that fling the viewer unapologetically into the very heart of the story can be hugely effective, and that’s what occurs with A Bullet Is Waiting. The first image is of boiling, surging waters, waves driven relentlessly by their own turmoil onto hard and unyielding rocks; this, backed by a characteristically muscular and dominant Dimitri Tiomkin score, signals an affair of heightened passions. As the camera moves around the detached wheel of a plane is visible at the edge of the swirling tide, and the tracking shot back inland reveals more wreckage and debris littering the shore, seguing gradually into footprints gouged frantically in the sand. And then, at the crest of a hillock, two figures loom into view struggling against and pummeling each other in desperation. They are Ed Stone (Rory Calhoun) and Frank Munson (Stephen McNally), fugitive and pursuer respectively, quite literally locked in combat since they are shackled together at this point. Stone gains the upper hand, releases himself and sets off alone. It’s a temporary separation though and these two antagonists are soon to be reunited when they stumble  onto private property. Cally Canham (Jean Simmons) is a young woman who has been living an isolated existence with only her reclusive father (Brian Aherne), and her loyal sheepdog, for company. With her father away for a few days, neither Callie nor the two survivors of the plane wreck particularly want to be holed up together in her cabin. However, a prolonged and dramatic storm leads to flooding that cuts off all possible escape routes, and forces these disparate characters to contemplate those timeless adversaries: retribution or redemption. By the time Callie’s father returns a number of truths will have been laid bare and paths chosen.

Now this is by no means a perfect movie, there are weaknesses which I’ll address later, but it has quite a lot going for it. Director John Farrow starts out with that wonderfully cinematic opening sequence I’ve spoken about and manages to steer a fairly even course throughout, avoiding the trap of letting it get too talky, even when the plot drifts toward some philosophical musing. That philosophy – espoused on screen by Aherne and represented by his withdrawal from a modern world he sees as increasingly dominated by confusion and conflict – is actually dealt with more subtly within the framework of the plot.  Personally, I see it as a variation on the classic redemption theme by focusing on the restorative powers of nature. From the primal power of the storm to Franz Planer’s beautiful photography of the pastoral scenes, and on to the soothing effect of the sheepdog and the lamb on the frayed emotions of the characters, the influence of nature and its ability to effect renewal is never far below the surface.

As I noted though, there are weaknesses here, which ought to be mentioned. Firstly, I see the redemptive strand having  a dual focus, on the characters of both Calhoun and McNally, the need for its application to the latter emerging only gradually. By the end this is seen to have been achieved, but in one case it was never in serious doubt anyway whereas in the other something is lost, in my view at least, by the abruptness with which it occurs. Any picture that embraces the concept of redemption and/or renewal is always welcome with me but I have to say I prefer it when the road which leads there feels a little longer, or when the battle is harder fought; in A Bullet Is Waiting it, and indeed the ending itself, arrives with something approaching alacrity. I’ve talked a lot about both Calhoun and McNally on this site in the past so I’ll simply say that both men turn in typically strong work, with the former’s innate likeability and the latter’s knack for tapping into ambiguity to the fore. Brian Aherne’s presence is felt from early on through his influence on his daughter’s thinking and character but he only makes an appearance in the final third. He brings a lovely sense of quiet authority and civility to his role. I liked him in Hitchcock’s I Confess and I must try to feature some more of his work in due course.

However, the real star of A Bullet Is Waiting is Jean Simmons. She had a good deal of range, her deranged beauty in Angel Face remains a remarkable piece of screen acting and contrasts with the delicate innocence she displays here. Her slow awakening and realization of the possibilities existing outside her cloistered existence is well done; the image of her sitting in her modest bedroom, leafing through her book on ballet, the little toy ballerina turning pirouettes within its own  protective yet restrictive space, as she tries to find some common ground with Calhoun’s roughneck is just impossibly charming.

A Bullet Is Waiting was put out as a manufactured on demand DVD in the US by Sony and it’s also available in a number of European editions. Generally, the image is pleasing with Planer’s Technicolor cinematography looking particularly fine. I see that the movie is categorized as a film noir by both IMDb and Wikipedia but, even as one who tends toward an inclusive interpretation, I don’t feel that it should be applied in this case. All told, despite a somewhat rushed ending, I found this to be an enjoyable and rewarding watch. It’s one I’ll be returning to.

The Sun Also Rises

Adaptation, moving from one medium to another, has been a feature of moviemaking since the earliest days, and it’s always been fraught with difficulties. Shifting a theatrical production from the stage to the screen ought to be a reasonably smooth procedure, after all drama is drama, right? Well, not always. What captivates in the theater can all too easily appear static and restrictive on the screen. Yet this is as nothing compared to the potential pitfalls of the literary adaptation, and the more famous or well-regarded the source material, the greater the chance of a negative reaction. This is understandable – authors decry the debasement of their work, the simplifications imposed, and readers express dismay at the excision of cherished passages or, worse yet, casting decisions that make a nonsense of the images they’ve been carrying around in their minds. In short, a screenwriter with a  book to adapt can be forgiven for seeing himself (or herself) on a hiding to nothing. The Sun Also Rises (1957) is based on what might well be Hemingway’s best book and it doesn’t seem to have made too many people happy. The author reportedly derided it and the screenwriter Peter Viertel disliked it. I’m not really sure what the critical consensus is but I know I always enjoyed the movie. If the book was about dreams and desires that were doomed to failure, flirtations and affairs that could only ever be imitations of what the protagonists wanted or needed, a paean to the beauty and tragedy of what can never be, then I reckon the movie, because of rather than in spite of all its flaws, might just be as good an adaptation as anyone could ever hope to make.

The Lost Generation: Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Paris, art, passion and a massive collective hangover after years of pointless slaughter seguing into a decade of apparent aimlessness, where creativity was the only antidote available to a creeping despair. Jake Barnes (Tyrone Power) is a product of all this, surrounded by artists and assorted dilettantes, wunderkinds and wasters. He is in some ways the most directionless of them all, a newspaperman who never returned home after the war and probably never will. The scars of conflict run deep in his case, rendering him impotent and thus consumed by apathy and resignation. He’s an observer of the hedonism and excess, central to it all by acquaintance yet peripheral by necessity. It’s through his eyes that the viewer sees the story unfold: first in the Parisian nightspots where he reacquaints himself with the aristocratic Lady Brett Ashley (Ava Gardner) – in his words, a drunk and a drifter – and just about tolerates the painfully self-aware Robert Cohn (Mel Ferrer); and then later in Pamplona for the fiesta, where Brett’s fiancé the dissipated Mike Campbell (Errol Flynn) meets up with them all. The whole thing amounts to a journey of discovery, where a group of desperate people are gradually force to confront the reality that, through ill-fortune or maybe just the vagaries of fate, none of them can ever hope to capture the love or personal fulfillment they yearn for. Yes, the sun will rise on another day but it’s a chill dawn that signals a world moving further away from their grasp.

The entire second act is played out during the height of the fiesta, with Mexican locations doubling for Pamplona. As the relationships become ever more tangled and the jealousies, flirtations and frustrations grow in intensity to match the progress of the fiesta the one constant in the background holding the group together is the Corrida. Hemingway was fascinated by bullfighting, writing Death in the Afternoon to address his passion for it. My own take on that aspect is that it was fueled, as were so many of his themes and concerns, by the reaction to those wartime years that left the characters of The Sun Also Rises adrift in the world. Much is made of the nobility and honesty of man confronting the overwhelming power of nature head on, of its spectacle and theatricality. It feels like an attempt to juxtapose this grand theater of death with the mindless mass slaughter he had experienced. It is as though his attitude to living and, maybe even more important in his case, dying is shaped by it; there appears to be a need to find some order and formality to it all and thus achieve some spiritual accommodation with himself and perhaps with the world in general.

As I said above, Hemingway expressed dissatisfaction with the adaptation, much to producer Darryl F Zanuck’s disgust, although it’s been suggested he may not even have seen it. Screenwriter Peter Viertel wasn’t happy with how it all turned out either, complaining about the decision to shoot in Mexico rather than Spain. Frankly, I don’t think that makes a lot of difference to the finished movie and it certainly isn’t something this viewer would count as a weakness. He also seems to have had some issues with the casting, but he’s not alone in that and it’s something I’ll come to later. Are there changes to what Hemingway had put down on paper thirty years before? Yes of course, but again my own feeling is that these aren’t of a magnitude to trouble me, and I think it’s necessary to come to terms with the fact that a shift to a different medium is always going to result in changes for a range of practical reasons. What’s important is to respect and appreciate a work on its own terms, not in relation to where it came from, not what we the audience feel it should be, not even what the original creator wanted. Ultimately, one can only evaluate the worth of a piece of art on the basis of what it is.

Henry King’s direction is as assured as ever, transitioning smoothly from  scene to scene and on into each distinct act. The CinemaScope image is well used by him in the scenes illustrating the crowded and bustling nature of the fiesta but what’s critical is his ability to maintain the required sense of intimacy when the main players interact – the bar and bistro scenes, the pivotal bedroom scenes where everyone retreats for rest but where personal revelations are made and souls are frequently bared, and of course the two key moments with Brett and Jake sharing the back seats of cars. Those are the moments where King’s lens brings the focus onto the principals, where they and their jumble of emotions dominate that big screen to the exclusion of all else.

As for the casting, I’ve seen comments before to the effect that the movie was miscast with a central group who were too old for the parts they were playing. This is undeniable and some of them look very shopworn indeed, although again I’ve never considered it a drawback. It’s been many years now since I read Hemingway’s novel but I do recall thinking that here were a collection of people whose youth had been stripped away by the horrors of combat, who had been forcibly aged beyond their years. Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn do look tired but their characters have been badly bruised by life so that’s not an issue as far as I’m concerned.

Power gets across the introversion, bitterness and only half concealed impatience of Jake, his surface affability appearing thin and brittle at times. Ava Gardner is fine too as the unfulfilled beauty, a woman who ought to have it all but who has fallen foul of a piece of rotten ill-fortune by loving the one man who cannot satisfy her needs. The substitutes she flits restlessly around are a disappointing selection: Mel Ferrer’s emotional immaturity and self-absorption is easy to despise and Errol Flynn’s decayed swashbuckler can only ever be a temporary  distraction. And it’s a superb performance by Flynn, a brutally honest portrayal of self-destruction. The sparkle is still there and the charm too but there’s a desperate sense of regret that can’t fail to touch one and I doubt the screen has ever seen a finer display of ragged dignity. Eddie Albert provides a happy-go-lucky prop for Flynn, and Juliette Greco, who just recently left us, is impressively insouciant in a small part. It seems that few people were keen on Robert Evans as the bullfighter who captivates Gardner, prompting Zanuck’s famous “the kid stays in the picture” remark. To be honest, I don’t think he adds a lot – he does have a certain gauche quality that is partially endearing but I’m not sure there’s the kind of magnetism about him that would give rise to an obsession in a character like Brett.

The Sun Also Rises has always looked strong on DVD; I had the old UK disc for many years and thought it looked fine but I was tempted to pick up the the Blu-ray over the summer when I noticed it going cheap.  Unsurprisingly, it looks even better in high definition and there are some nice supplements to add value, including a commentary track, an audio interview with Henry King,  a featurette on the making of the movie with contributions from Peter Viertel among others, and one on Hemingway adaptions in general.  All in all then, I feel that despite the reservations some have expressed regarding casting choices, locations, and changes from the original text, that the movie holds up well. If there are imperfections, and I’m not sure some of those are as damaging as they’re alleged to be, then that’s perhaps appropriate for a film about characters who are themselves less than perfect.