Ruby Gentry

Incompatibility, or the absence of harmony, is what Ruby Gentry (1952) is all about. It’s a tale of love and ambition, and the friction generated by attempting to marry those two emotional opponents. Underpinning all that is the downbeat assertion that it is futile for one to try to escape the bonds of the past, that the future has already been mapped by circumstance or one’s  forebears, or perhaps some unseen guiding hand. This fatalistic view, one approaching the idea of predestination, tilts the movie in the direction of film noir; I think it is deserving of the noir label although I do acknowledge that there are those who will claim it is debatable whether it really belongs in that nebulous category.

Dr Saul Manfred (Barney Phillips) is the man from whose  point of view the story is seen. He’s our narrator, a kind of everyman guide taking us through the varied and tangled relationships at the heart of the affair rather than one of those pompously stentorian “voices of authority” that sometimes lecture the audience at the beginning of a film noir. His is a much more thoughtful and sensitive description of events and people, a reflection of the character himself and also of the personal stake he had in its development, at least at the start. He tells of Ruby (Jennifer Jones), and it’s one of those classic parables detailing the rise and fall not only of the title  character but of all those who were part of her life, and indeed one might even say of the rise and fall of the stuffy and socially suffocating community they all inhabit. Ruby is introduced as a swampland tomboy, an impoverished temptress in tight sweaters and torn jeans, as skillful with a rifle as she is careless with the hearts she captures. Simultaneously skittish and coquettish, she has spent time fostered in the well-to-do household of local big shot Jim Gentry (Karl Malden) and it’s whispered among the more mean-spirited in town that she has acquired ideas above her station. This is clear from her romance with Boake Tackman (Charlton Heston), a returning jock from a patrician background and a head full of big plans. The rigid social order is disapproving and Tackman hasn’t the moral courage to rise above this, so Ruby is drawn back into the world of the recently widowed Jim Gentry. Thus a complex web of ambition and desire is spun around a set of people who all think they know what they want but have no clear idea of how to get it, or to hold onto what they do manage to grab.

King Vidor’s  direction (working from a script by Silvia Richards) is beautifully controlled, pacy and rarely extravagant yet lush in its depiction of the steamy swamp where the climactic scene is played out and also in the richly detailed interiors, especially the house occupied by Ruby and her family. He uses space well to convey mood, the joyous and liberating race along the beach and through the surf in Tackman’s car perfectly captures the early exuberance of Ruby and her love, and then the cramped room which she shares with Jim and the doctor for the failed party after her marriage encapsulates the narrow and restrictive world she finds herself in. In the creation and presentation of these varied moods Russell Harlan’s cinematography is all one could ask for and no less than one would expect from such an artist in the manipulation of light. Ultimately, the movie works as a condemnation of unfettered ambition, where each of the main characters systematically destroys everything they care for in the pursuit of the unattainable. It is this, alongside the sour judgemental snobbery of a blinkered society, which stymies the only pure feelings on show – love is either thwarted or left unfulfilled and atrophied.

Jennifer Jones as the title character does succeed in drawing in the viewer, her allure is clear from her first appearance and the reunion with Heston on the porch in the dark and by torchlight gives a foretaste of the tumultuous nature of their relationship. Her efforts to fuse her love and her hunger to climb the social ladder is apparent from early on and the slow realization that she can only achieve the latter at the expense of the former is painful to see but convincingly portrayed by Jones. In the final analysis, hers is not an attractive character, the vindictiveness (though understandable) adds coldness and her attempts time and again to net Heston detract from her somewhat.

That latter aspect is amplified when it comes to the marriage to Malden’s besotted millionaire. His motives are the most straightforward and honest of the lead trio and he consequently earns a good deal of sympathy. There is a terrifically affecting moment when he catches his wife out in a foolish betrayal and you can see not only his world crumbling before his eyes but his assessment of himself as a man undergoing a reevaluation as he gazes in frank despondence into the mirror behind the bar of the country club. Heston simply oozes machismo, that powerful screen presence clear from even this relatively early stage in his career. For all the swaggering bravado though his Boake Tackman is a moral coward, a “back-door man” hiding behind his family’s position and reputation. Also deserving of mention is some fine work from Tom Tully, Barney Phillips and, in a disturbingly fanatical turn as the scripture-quoting brother, James Anderson.

Ruby Gentry has had a Blu-ray release in the US from Kino and there are a range of DVDs out there as well. I still have my old UK disc put out by Fremantle many years ago and it presents the movie most satisfactorily, although there are no supplements whatsoever offered. The movie has a strong emotional hook and Vidor’s assured direction, as well as Harlan’s cinematography and Heinz Roemheld’s score, combines effectively with some excellent performances. This may not be a picture you come away from with a particularly positive glow but it does have some depth and the final image, and message, may not be quite as downbeat as it first appears.

Man Without a Star

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

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

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

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