“There’s a story they tell that whoever catches him gets what’s coming to him, his judgment right here on earth.”
I think that one of the great delights of the cinema is its ability to be surprising, to reveal gems we the viewers had previously been unaware of. I can’t see myself ever tiring of the movies for it seems that when I’m not revisiting old favorites to bask in the comforting warmth of their presence I’m reassessing those which I’d thought less successful to see what positives I may have missed. Then there are the discoveries, those new viewing experiences that remind me of the vein of riches yet to be mined. Thunderhoof (1948) is an example of the latter, although it may sound more than a little odd to think of a production that is over 70 years old as a new discovery. Still, from my perspective, that is exactly what it is, a title I only came to after some recent discussion about the work of director Phil Karlson brought it to my attention. A number of people whose judgement I trust sang its praises and, having now had the chance to see it for myself, I can only echo those sentiments.
Thunderhoof is a film that never misses an opportunity to wrong-foot the viewer, tempting you to think one thing before deftly showing you how neatly your own expectations have allowed you to be deceived. That is how it opens, with Scotty Mason (Preston Foster), a man engaged in a tight race between his own encroaching middle-age and his desire to start a horse ranch, one which will permit him to offer his much younger wife Margarita (Mary Stuart) the type of life he wants for her. That opening has Margarita watching over a remote and deserted camp in the wilderness, rifle poised to fire in the face of any threat. Out of the desolate night comes a rider with what looks like the figure of a lifeless man slung across his saddle, and up goes the rifle to challenge him. There is no danger here though, it is only Scotty coming back and bringing with him The Kid (William Bishop), the nameless young man he rescued and raised. For a moment we’re encouraged to think The Kid is dead, but he’s merely dead drunk.
This film is at heart a study of proprietorship, both on a personal level and in a wider context. Scotty has ridden out in the night to find and restore The Kid to the triangular family unit formed by these characters. There is that old old proverb from the East claiming that to save a life means taking on responsibility for it thereafter and that is certainly the philosophy Scotty appears to adhere to; whether The Kid likes it or not, his mentor and former guardian intends to see to it that he’s taken care of. For his part, The Kid is consumed with the restlessness of youth, the need to break out and break away, although he too would not be averse to laying claim to Margarita’s affections. Powering all of this is Scotty’s ambition to own and later to breed a line sired by the fabled mustang Thunderhoof. When the chance to rope this wild beast arises, both men, who were at that very moment in the process of trying to kill each other, put their differences to one side temporarily. Thunderhoof’s capture comes at the cost of a broken leg for Scotty, a major impediment to survival in such a hostile environment. Scotty wants the horse and he also wants his wife, The Kid is set on Margarita alone, and she seems unsure of what she hungers for bar some nebulous and ill-defined notion of fulfillment. However, the only way for these disparate characters to have a shot at attaining their desires is by keeping the others alive and kicking.
Thunderhoof was written by Hal Smith, whose credits include the lesser known film noir Night Editor as well as The River’s Edge, The Defiant Ones and Inherit the Wind. That script is a marvelously tight affair with its focus firmly on the interactions and rivalries of the three characters. It takes a fairly simple scenario and spins as much suspense and doubt from it as possible. The small cast and spartan setting allow the themes of desire, trust and betrayal to be thoroughly examined, and the conclusions reached, as the three travelers discover their true natures, are remarkably satisfying. Karlson’s direction is smooth and refuses to shy away from the tougher aspects of the story and the less savory sides of its characters. A good part of it is shot at night, meaning cinematographer Henry Freulich gets to show off some superbly evocative shadow painting as Scotty, The Kid and Margarita play out their subtly shaded roles.
Preston Foster had a long career playing all kinds of characters. I enjoyed the ambivalence he brought to his role in Karlson’s Kansas City Confidential and he also did good work for De Toth in Ramrod. As Scotty Mason he had the chance to take on a fully rounded individual, one of those fascinating characters who spend their time chasing dreams while they are simultaneously doing their level best to outrun the relentless clutches of time. Superficially, it is a big, booming performance, earthy and rambunctious and indomitable. Yet in his quieter moments, there is doubt and a niggling fear of life or his own failings – the cold desperation we see writ large upon his shadow drenched features as he lies drifting in and out of fever, while The Kid and Margarita sing and laugh in the next room, is beautifully realized.
Mary Stuart is someone I know I’ve seen in a few movies but who hadn’t made much of an impression on me. Her greatest success came on television in a long-running role in daytime soap opera. I cannot comment on that aspect of her career but I do know that she was excellent in the part of former saloon singer Margarita. She juggled the loyalty she felt toward Scotty with the temptation to run off with The Kid and achieved the perfect balance in the process. Of course such a role is a plum one but it is to her credit that she carried it off so convincingly. Her climactic stumbling through the nighttime desert, abandoned, desperate and bereft till the figure of the man she truly loves rides into view to offer both physical and spiritual salvation is poetically shot and movingly played. William Bishop’s life was cut tragically short but he made a number of fine movies in the time he had. The role of The Kid presented him with what I think is the best, or most nuanced, part I’ve seen him play. I’m now keen to catch up with Lorna Doone, another movie he made with Phil Karlson. This piece would of course be incomplete without some mention of the title character. Dice was a horse that also appeared in Duel in the Sun and he was used well in this movie, first as the prize to be won and then later as savior. The scenes of his capture and of his breaking are excitingly filmed and I am of the opinion that the image of horses being broken tends to act as a metaphor for the taming of the West itself – something wild, beautiful and untamed that must be carefully and patiently brought under control, that is gradually transformed from a source of peril into a symbol of support and a means of ensuring survival.
Thunderhoof was a Columbia picture and was released on DVD some years ago by Sony as part of the now defunct Choice Collection MOD program. It looks solid throughout, sharp, clean and attractive. Part of me wishes I’d been aware of this movie years ago, but I’m pleased to have been guided towards “discovering” it recently. I am also grateful to be in the position now where I can recommend this rather wonderful little film to others.
The Texas Rangers
There is something wildly entertaining about dipping into that era when Hollywood thought nothing of gleefully ripping pages if not whole chapters out of the history books in order to mix and match the characters, events and consequences the writers had decided would feature in their story. What makes it especially enjoyable is the fact this unapologetic grinding up facts had no agenda whatsoever, no nods to knowing, joyless postmodernism, nothing more in fact than a desire to present a piece of straightforward entertainment. The Texas Rangers (1951) works on the principle that the key to success is to pack as many big name outlaws as possible into the plot and have the hero take on this rogues’ gallery. If you are after an accurate depiction of the past, then it’s probably best to give this one a miss. If, on the other hand, you’re in the market for a pacy and uncomplicated western, this one will fit the bill.
Somewhat at odds with the fanciful nature of the tale which will unfold, the opening scenes attempt to place the characters in some sort of context. Suffice to say that we’re in Texas in the years following the Civil War and the Reconstruction. There is then a brief introduction to the main outlaws: Sam Bass (William Bishop) looks to be a model of charm and courtesy, smiling as he efficiently robs a train, only allowing the facade of politeness to drop momentarily as he ruthlessly guns down a less compliant passenger; John Wesley Hardin (John Dehner) is dapper, cool and devious, a gentlemanly killer; the most sadistic of all is Dave Rudabaugh (Douglas Kennedy), grinning maliciously as he savagely drives a knife through another man’s hand in the course of a not so friendly card game. Then there is Johnny Carver (George Montgomery) who, along with Buff Smith (Noah Beery Jr), runs into trouble during a botched bank raid. Actually, he runs into a bullet fired by a treacherous Sundance Kid (Ian Macdonald) and consequently ends up serving hard time as an accessory to murder.
So, with Texas descending into near anarchy as a result of the activities of the gang headed up by Sam Bass, the authorities have to be seen to act. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Major John B Jones (John Litel) of the Texas Rangers has Carver and Smith released on probation, on condition they serve under him with the aim of smashing the power of the Bass gang. And that is essentially what it is all about, a not unfamiliar story of men with an unsavory past given an opportunity to redeem themselves by taking on and ultimately infiltrating a criminal organization. Along the way, there are enough brawls, chases, shootouts, betrayals and twists to satisfy even the most demanding viewer.
Phil Karlson, working from a story by Frank Gruber and a script by Richard Schayer, rarely lets the action portrayed on screen pause for breath. Incident piles on top of incident and no situation is allowed to hang around till it grows unwelcome. The plot is tied to that classic theme of redemption which is never far from the surface in so many westerns of the 1950s, but it’s never particularly emphasized here. Nevertheless, it is present for those who want it, and I’m certainly a person who appreciates this aspect, even when (or perhaps because) it serves to ground the most escapist fare. For a movie that is almost determinedly lacking in pretension and which prides itself on its sense of urgency, The Texas Rangers looks both handsome and stylish. Karlson never misses a chance to employ a telling close-up, to shoot from an unexpected angle or to frame a scene in an interesting way.
George Montgomery’s laid-back style is used to fine effect in this movie, there’s an assurance coupled with exuberance about him, and when you factor in the easy grace with which he moves around the frame it’s evident how comfortable he was in a western setting. His two big dramatic scenes, played out with Jerome Courtland and Noah Beery respectively, are handled competently enough but the fact is that area wasn’t his strongest suit. Beery is his usual homespun self, appealingly diffident and upright. Of the outlaw band, William Bishop gets more screen time as befits his role and he’s fine, although there’s not the menace about him one might expect. However, that is certainly not the case with Douglas Kennedy. He looks and acts implacably mean, being responsible for, and seeming to relish, some of the more reprehensible pieces of villainy. John Dehner rarely fails to impress, even in minor roles, and he adds some scene-stealing polish to his part as the untrustworthy killer. Ian Macdonald scowls effectively and Jock Mahoney takes another step on the path that would lead him from stuntman to star. The only woman in the film is Gale Storm but her part as a newspaperwoman whose father was murdered by the Sundance Kid is sadly underdeveloped, tracing an arc from hostility to devotion that never feels the least bit convincing.
The Texas Rangers doesn’t appear to be available as a DVD or Blu-ray anywhere, or at least I haven’t been able to come across any releases. If anybody reading this happens to know of one, I’d be pleased to hear about it. However, it can usually be viewed online, and with satisfactory picture quality too. A good many of George Montgomery’s westerns are now available, although there are still a few notable absences such as this. Generally speaking, I think a lot of Columbia’s second string westerns don’t get a lot of love. Sure many of them are pretty frugal affairs, shot fast and sometimes featuring casts that won’t have the name recognition to make them easily marketable to a modern audience. That said, it’s worth remembering that movies of this type were the staples that kept the genre going for so long. The Texas Rangers is not a classic, but it is an attractive film that never wastes a moment of its 75 minute running time. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay is to say that it is simply a pleasure to watch.
They Rode West
A movie is a journey, one undertaken by characters and observed by viewers, and the degree to which it can be considered a success depends on how much those characters have learnt about themselves and the world they occupy by the time they reach their destination. I think this holds true for most films, whatever the genre, but it plays an even more significant role in the western. The western, despite its frequent reliance on action, is very much a character driven genre. The great westerns achieve that quality through the development of their characters, emphasizing growth, renewal and redemption along the way. When I view a film like Phil Karlson’s They Rode West (1954) I am left thinking it is only partially successful, which of course is not to say that it fails to entertain or that it has no points of interest in plotting or approach. Ultimately though, the film feels more like an exercise in vindication as opposed to redemption, which is never as rewarding a payoff.
As is the case in any good drama, They Rode West presents multiple layers of conflict. From the beginning it is clear that Captain Blake (Phil Carey) has a strong dislike and distrust of the medical profession. The outpost has had the misfortune to be lumbered with a succession of incompetents, the last of whom has just killed Blake’s friend through drunken negligence. So, when the new replacement, Lieutenant Seward (Robert Francis), turns out to be a green recruit with neither military nor frontier experience, Blake is perhaps understandably antagonistic. This is the main source of conflict that runs through the movie and it is supplemented by a kind of stuttering rivalry over the affections of the Colonel’s niece Laurie (Donna Reed). Alongside that, there is further friction generated by Seward’s compassion and empathy for the plight of the Kiowa of the nearby reservation, feelings which are complicated by his obvious attraction to a white captive (May Wynn). Caught between the hawkish and inflexible Blake and the increasingly frustrated Kiowa, Seward soon finds the call of his conscience has led to him being labeled a traitor (a wood hawk) by the troopers.
They Rode West is a handsome production with Charles Lawton’s cinematography making the best of the Iverson Ranch locations. I can’t find anything to confirm my suspicions, but the shooting style employed by Karlson gives the impression that the movie was shot for 3D presentation. He indulges in a fair few heavily canted angles, which may simply be a stylistic choice, but there are a number of scenes (predominantly action/battle sequences) where those telltale shots of people and objects leaning and falling onto the lens are on display.
Frank Nugent’s screenplay, from a story by Leo Katcher (The Hard Man, Party Girl, Between Midnight and Dawn) has Seward and Blake forever at daggers drawn, principally though not exclusively over their contrasting attitudes towards the Kiowa. This is well enough done and feeds into the more nuanced view of the Indian that an be found throughout westerns of the era, particularly those of Delmer Daves and George Sherman, and elements of this crop up in Karlson’s own later (and superior) Gunman’s Walk. Still, the handling, or maybe I should say the way the characterizations unfold, is not all that satisfactory. As I alluded to at the top of the piece, there is little of the redemptive spirit that enriches so many 1950s westerns. One could, I suppose, argue that Seward’s actions eventually lead to the restoration of trust between the warring sides and that the faith he manages to draw from the both sets of combatants has a redemptive effect on them. However, I feel that is reaching somewhat, that the truth is the tale winds its way to a vindication of the approach championed by Seward from the get go. While that is fine in itself, it means his character has undergone little change; he sees his ideals comes to be accepted and the criticism leveled at him firmly rebutted yet he remains essentially the man we first saw, albeit a little more worldly-wise.
Phil Carey seems like he should have had a bigger career. I guess his credits show he did fine in general, but the fact is, in spite of working for directors such as John Ford and Raoul Walsh, he never rose above second lead in anything other than programmers. Roles like that of Captain Blake can’t have helped, he starts out as abrasive and short-tempered (justifiably so under the circumstances) and basically stays that way till the end credits roll. As I said, there is no renewal or rebirth to be seen here and it’s an ambivalent part too, neither fish nor fowl. Robert Francis gets the noble part and he plays it well, with freshness and decency and he also conveys the doubts and guilt which assail him quite effectively. However, his was a short and tragic life and he would die in a plane crash just a year later at the age of 25 having made only four films. May Wynn (who worked opposite Robert Francis in The Caine Mutiny) has what I feel is the most interesting part in the movie. The role is not an especially taxing one but it is pivotal and, crucially, it offers an unexpected perspective on the life of a captive. She is not portrayed as someone who is seeking escape, but instead as a woman who has reconciled herself to life with the Kiowa and who has no intention of leaving. Donna Reed had just won an Oscar for From Here to Eternity but this film wasn’t going to capitalize on that. Although she has some fun showing a bit of coquetry from time to time, it’s all standard love interest stuff and never particularly memorable.
They Rode West has appeared on DVD in France and Spain and it can generally be tracked down for online viewing too. All in all, it is an enjoyable western, a solid cavalry yarn whose heart is in the right place. It’s attractively put together, has pace and includes some exciting action scenes. Had the scripting allowed some real growth in the characters to take place, I wouldn’t feel the need to offer caveats. So, whilst it won’t make anyone’s list of great westerns, it is still a good one.
Yes, I know – there are those who will argue, quite vociferously too, that there’s no such beast as a color noir. I’ve heard these arguments before, seen them made with passion and insight. However, while I fully respect the view I cannot buy into it. OK, ultimately, none of this matters a jot but it’s the kind of stuff we film fans do like to chew the fat over. Anyway, I’m of the opinion that Hell’s Island (1955) ought to be categorized as film noir as it has enough of the core ingredients to qualify.
Somewhat unusually, the opening credits play over what turns out to be the climax of the movie. From there we move to a hospital, where the protagonist has been undergoing surgery for a bullet wound. Still lying on the table as the doctor patches him up, Mike Cormack (John Payne) recounts his tale to the local policeman. Now I might as well make it clear that some may find the whole affair more than a little contrived. There’s no denying this, and I think that you have to embrace this aspect if you plan on enjoying the ride. So, here we are in the operating theater, with the hero chain-smoking (with the doctor’s consent) and narrating the peculiar set of circumstances that brought him to that point in just over a week. He’d been working as a kind of bouncer in a Las Vegas casino when he’s handed a proposition – for $5000 he’s to travel to a Caribbean island and inquire into the whereabouts of a valuable ruby that the owner wants back. Why him? That’s simple: the wife of the last man in possession of the gem is an old flame of Cormack’s and he’s therefore seen as having a ready-made foothold. To me, this and what follows is all characteristic of pulp noir – the impossibly convoluted tangle of relationships overshadowing everything before we even start, a clipped and world-weary voiceover from the lead, a location where the opportunities for corruption seem ideal, a femme fatale (Mary Murphy) who looks and acts like she’s been hoodwinking suckers all her life and, of course, a tough guy lead everyone appears intent on crossing up.
This was the third feature director Karlson and star Payne made together (following on from 99 River Street and Kansas City Confidential) and it has to be said it’s the least of the three. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie; if anything, acknowledging that this is a lesser affair is a testament to the high quality of the previous two collaborations. It’s enjoyable and pacy, with moments of toughness to hold the attention. Furthermore, it’s photographed by Lionel Lindon so there’s a polished and stylish look to it all. Yet, as I mentioned above, it’s also unashamedly pulpy, and there’s never any serious attempt to sell the story as anything else. We get the shady, overweight underworld type in a motorized wheelchair (Francis L Sullivan), the femme fatale’s effete associate (Arnold Moss) , and then there’s the protagonist who’s pursuing the novel career path of lawyer-drunk-bouncer-patsy. When I say that all of these are blended together in a budget-conscious, set bound (mind you, it is an attractive set) Pine-Thomas production, then it ought to give a sense of the kind of movie we have. Basically, it’s a caper with some hard edges, as well as being a good-looking showcase for its stars.
By this stage, John Payne had settled comfortably into these types of roles. He was capable of slugging it out convincingly with the best of them, and was credible whether on the receiving end of a casually brutal beating or booting a musclebound henchman into a pool full of hungry alligators. The scenes where he and Mary Murphy are trading kisses and threats are nicely done, but they too have that artificial, semi-cartoonish quality as though ripped from the cover of a 50s paperback; the whole thing winks at you in a stylish, sexy way but in your heart you know it’s superficial. A lot of the sexiness stems from Mary Murphy, giving an arch performance that’s fun to watch but you never really get the impression that she was stretching herself. And the thing is she was a good actress – having made a strong impression in The Wild One, she enjoyed a fair run in the 1950s. Around the time of this movie she was in two, in my opinion anyway, superior productions, Ray Milland’s fine western A Man Alone and Wyler’s The Desperate Hours alongside Bogart and March. The following year she would go on to play opposite Richard Basehart in Joseph Losey’s underrated and neglected The Intimate Stranger/Finger of Guilt – you can find reviews of that one by Sergio here and by Vienna here. Moving further down the cast list, a slippery Arnold Moss is good value as expected. Frankly, I like a good heavyweight villain and so I feel it’s a pity Francis L Sullivan (in what I think may have been his last role role before his untimely death) doesn’t get more screen time.
Hell’s Island is one of those films that remains stubbornly difficult to acquire in decent quality. I picked up a German DVD (I believe there are also Spanish and Italian variants on the market but I have no idea how they fare in comparison) which is just barely OK. The movie is offered in a choice of presentations – a 4:3 one that seems to be a letterboxed non-anamorphic image, and a 16:9 one that I guess is blown up from the other? Basically, it’s watchable but the image is muddy and colors are muted and dull. What’s needed is a full restoration – whether or not that’s likely is anybody’s guess. All in all, Hell’s Island is what I think of as enjoyable pulp noir – there’s as much, or more, caricature as characterization, and you’re never quite convinced that these people exist. Yet the direction and the actors keep you watching and at no time does it commit the cardinal sin of being dull or uninteresting. So, while it might not be essential you should still have a good time with it.
Incidentally, this happens to be the 500th post on this blog. Bearing in mind how long this place has been open for business, some might consider that slacking. Nevertheless, it is a milestone of sorts and worth mentioning in passing if nothing else. So my sincere thanks to all of you who have contributed so much to the shared experience over the years – I couldn’t do it without you. Stay safe and well everybody!
Kansas City Confidential
Just a glance at the ingredients is sometimes enough to tell you you’re going to like the house specialty. First up, we have a carefully planned and executed heist, added to that is a bunch of edgy and suspicious hoods, a vindictive and brutal police force, and a textbook example of a fall guy. Kansas City Confidential (1952) consists of the kind of components that spell noir in unmistakably flickering neon. It’s all about double-crosses and cheats, keeping the other guy guessing and off-guard while looking out for a chance to get even for the cheap brush-off fate has handed you.
Joe Rolfe (John Payne) is a classic noir protagonist, a poor sap who can’t seem to catch a break no matter what. He’s had an (incomplete) education and a war record to be proud of but he’s also had a little trouble with the law. A mistake on his part has led to his doing some time inside and now his prospects are a little dimmed. We first catch sight of him at work, driving a delivery van for a florist. Someone else sees him too, a man (Preston Foster) across the way with a stopwatch is timing is movements. Why? Because a heist, an armored car raid, is being set up and part of that setup is hanging a frame round the neck of Joe Rolfe. The police will be sweating, and beating, the innocent delivery guy while the real thieves are making their getaway with $1.2 million along for their trouble. The beauty of this raid, aside from the convenient patsy to occupy the law, is the idea to make all the participants wear masks that means their anonymity (and thus their inability to identify or be identified) is ensured. The concept of honor among thieves has always been a sour joke and brains behind this robbery is well aware of that and so has taken these steps so as to avoid having to depend on any such fairy tales. By the time the police have finished pummeling Rolfe and released him he hasn’t much beyond cold shoulders and welfare to look forward to, that and a desire to find the men who put him in this bind. He’s handed one lead – a criminal called Pete Harris (Jack Elam) has recently lit out unexpectedly for Tijuana in Mexico and it’s just possible it may be to avoid the attentions of the law. And so Rolfe heads south, looking for men he’s never seen, money he’s never laid hands on, and a reputation he might never retrieve.
Noir from the 50s has a slightly different feel and flavor to it, the crimes that typically underpin such stories tend to be less personal than those of the previous decade. While the focus remains on the individuals involved and the consequences faced by them, there is an increasing shift towards organized crime and a frequently faceless threat. It’s kind of appropriate, therefore, that the villains of this piece are essentially faceless men, career criminals stripped of all identity beyond their own left-handed professionalism, and answerable only to another disguised figure. Even our hero in this story of deception, deceit and illusion indulges in the same chameleon-like behavior, stepping into the shoes of another man in order to coax his enemies out into the open. The setting is altered too, although the movie opens in an urban environment it soon moves out of the city to a small Mexican vacation resort, a place tourists usually visit for the fishing but the people we’re watching are angling for something else. Anyway, regardless of what variations on the classic noir formula are on view, director Phil Karlson turns in a characteristically strong piece of work. He moves the camera around with great fluidity, catching every subtle nuance in what is a tricky game of bluff and counter-bluff.
I’ve talked before about John Payne’s noir work and I’ll just reiterate here that he was particularly skilled in nailing the resigned quality that is such an important part of make-up of characters in this type of cinema. The role here suits him well and he has the innate toughness you’d expect of a war veteran, the intelligence of an educated man but also the weariness of one who’s had to face up to the unpalatable fact that life doesn’t play fair all the time. In addition to Payne, there’s a supporting cast to die for. Preston Foster was well cast in a reasonably complex part – it called for a confident, avuncular smoothness in one respect but also required a diamond-hard core.
Coleen Gray is fine too playing a woman who is having the wool pulled over her eyes by just about everyone yet she’s supposed to be on the verge of becoming a lawyer; while this isn’t any criticism of the actress I think the script is probably at its weakest, or least logical anyway, on this score. The other woman in the cast is Dona Drake who was clearly having a good time as a flirtatious souvenir seller. And of course we have the holy trinity of heavies in Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand. I sometimes think it’s a shame all three don’t get to spend more time on screen together, but then again it may have just led to character actor gluttony – one way or another, we do get to see a lot of all of them and there’s really not a lot to complain about.
Kansas City Confidential is a film that spent a long time in public domain hell as far as commercial releases are concerned. For a long time the only way to see the movie was by viewing grotty copies with fuzzy contrast and non-existent detail. Then, some years ago, MGM put out a quality version of the title on DVD in the US and it was a revelation. There have been a few Blu-ray releases since then but, by all accounts, these are waxy-looking affairs which haven’t been restored but simply had flaws (and vital detail too) digitally scrubbed away. As far as I’m aware, the old MGM DVD remains the best edition on the market. Digital issues and quibbles aside, the film is an excellent film noir, a highlight in the resumés of the cast and the director.
99 River Street
There are worse things than murder. You can kill someone an inch at a time.
I guess it’s no secret that I have a real fondness for low budget movies; there’s something fascinating about seeing how filmmakers are able to stretch their resources. There have been a fair few highly successful films noir that fall into this category, and that shouldn’t be all that surprising. Noir is arguably the type of movie best suited to budget filmmaking, relying less on location and high production values than almost any other style of picture. In truth, a clever director and cameraman can not only transcend the limitations of a tight budget, but can actually turn it to their advantage. Those directors who spent much of their early careers working in the B units were able to capitalize on their years of experience, and the better ones could make a virtue out of austerity. Phil Karlson was one of those who managed to make quality movies even when the finances were severely restricted. 99 River Street (1953) may be his best film noir, Kansas City Confidential would possibly challenge it for that honor though, and it’s certainly among his better films.
For Ernie Driscoll (John Payne) it wasn’t so much that he could have been a contender – he was. The opening sees Driscoll slugging it out in the ring during a world heavyweight title fight. He actually floors the champion and is just ten seconds away from glory. However, Driscoll is a classic noir protagonist – fate has got his number – so his opponent picks himself up, lands a lucky punch that opens a bad wound over his eye, and wins the bout on a TKO. Just to underline Driscoll’s fall from the big time, the camera pulls back to reveal that the fight scene we’ve been watching is in reality a syndicated rerun on TV. Driscoll’s sitting there, reliving every blow traded, torturing himself, as the pain flickers across his battle-scarred features. With his boxing career in tatters, Driscoll makes a living as a cab driver. He’s not exactly thrilled with this, but that’s nothing compared to the contempt felt by his disgruntled wife Pauline (Peggie Castle). Pauline is a former showgirl, bitterly disappointed at the way things have turned out and convinced that Driscoll is nothing but a loser. She may have a point too; not only is Pauline about to run off with a small time hood, Victor Rawlins (Brad Dexter), but Driscoll finds himself suckered into believing a melodramatic tale spun by an aspiring Broadway actress, Linda James (Evelyn Keyes). The point here is that Driscoll is one of those eternal fall guys, the kind of man who has bad things happen to him just because. As such, it’s no major surprise, least of all to Driscoll himself I guess, when he finds himself framed for murder and on the run. Nevertheless, he does have a few things in his favor – a kind of two-fisted toughness and never say die tenacity, and a couple of friends in his boss (Frank Faylen) and a repentant Linda. With the odds heavily stacked against him, and time running short, Driscoll has no option but to scour the city at night in pursuit of the real murderer in the hopes of catching up with him before he skips the country.
Lots of movies tend to get tagged as gritty, and not all of them deserve it. 99 River Street is the real deal though – positively brimming with lowlife characters, sudden and brutal violence, and the stench of hard luck. Driscoll is marked as a loser right from the first scene, but just about every character we meet fits that description to a greater or lesser extent. The strongest examples of film noir introduced viewers to a gallery of misfits, chiselers, cheats, and saps. 99 River Street seems to have nothing else but such people, and director Phil Karlson positively revels in the sordid, seedy world these guys inhabit. The movie studiously avoids any sense of glamor, telling its tale against a backdrop of run down stores, dingy back rooms and waterfront bars. The decrepit city setting was a staple of many a noir picture, and Karlson uses it well to evoke a world of lost hopes and broken dreams. He also keeps the pace brisk and that helps add to the sense of urgency of Driscoll’s quest. Stylistically, the film only intermittently features what could be termed classic noir visuals in the first half – the “confession” by Linda in a deserted theater being one example – but cameraman Franz Planer does turn it on as the climax approaches. The final chase and fight along the dockside makes use of a selection of long, medium and close-up shots, and bathes them all in atmospheric, inky shadows. Karlson was doing some great work in the 50s, and a movie like 99 River Street genuinely celebrates the meanness and toughness of film noir at its best. It’s also interesting to note the way the movie plays around with the viewer’s perceptions of reality – the opening sequence that turns out to be a television recording, and the theater scene that tricks both the audience and the lead character.
John Payne is something of a forgotten man these days, probably due to the fact that most of his best work was done in B movies and programmers. Starting with The Crooked Way in 1949 though, he made a series of tough and entertaining noirs and westerns, frequently working for Karlson or Allan Dwan. He had a rough, lived-in look about him that made him believable in these movies, and 99 River Street drew on that weary, beaten appearance. Payne gave a very edgy performance, full of rage, frustration and a kind of bitter misogyny. He completely convinced as a man who knew himself for a sap, who allowed himself to be strung along by the wrong kind of women all his life, and despised himself and them for it. His sudden bursts of violence when provoked too far had a ring of authenticity to them – whenever he landed a punch you could tell he meant it to do the maximum damage. Of course, a hard character like this needs something or someone to balance them, to ground them and stop them sliding too far into macho aggression. Evelyn Keyes was nearing the end of her big screen career, having hit the heights in Gone with the Wind, and so had just the right kind of faded disillusionment for her role. Initially, she comes across as slightly skittish and flaky, but soon proves her worth when the chips are down. There’s a common misconception that the only interesting women in film noir are those who play the femme fatale. However, I’m of the opinion that the frequently unsung Girl-Friday parts are every bit as significant. Keyes’ role here is vital in eliciting sympathy for Payne – without her presence and loyalty, there’s a danger of his less attractive qualities running out of control. That’s not to say the femme fatale, Peggie Castle in this case, is unimportant here. However, her role is much more one-dimensional and consequently less interesting. The film features a particularly strong supporting line-up: Frank Faylen is very likeable as Payne’s stoic boss, and Brad Dexter does a nice line in smarm and self-interest. Rounding out the cast is Jay Adler as a vindictive fence and Jack Lambert as his strong-arm sidekick.
There are a few options as far as DVD editions of 99 River Street are concerned. The film has been released as a MOD disc in the US via MGM, and it’s also available on pressed disc in Spain from Art House/Paycom. I have the Spanish release, and the transfer is pretty good. There are some instances of softness here and there, but it’s clean and sharp for the most part. One criticism I do have is that I found the sound a little low at times – not very poor, but noticeable. The disc has no extra features and subtitles are not forced – they can be disabled from the setup menu. All in all, I think 99 River Street is a fine example of early 50s film noir, exhibiting a harder edge than the usual 40s variety. It also shows off Karlson’s ability to shoot lean, tight little movies economically. He’s a director who’s not really known outside of film buff circles and I think his stronger films, such as this one, deserve a bit more attention. It’s worth checking out.
I guess one of the most typical features of the western genre, both implicitly and explicitly, is the way it places the whole concept of masculinity under the microscope. The rugged nature of the environment and living conditions in the old west meant that traditionally male qualities were highly regarded, as such it’s only to be expected that western movies should frequently analyze and comment upon these. Even the humblest programmers tackled this theme, although not always in the subtlest of ways. Phil Karlson’s Gunman’s Walk (1958) approached the issue head-on using the framework of a family drama, and also worked in some interesting and important comments on evolving race relations and changing perceptions of law and civilization on the frontier.
Lee Hackett (Van Heflin) is an old-time rancher of tough frontier stock, one of that hard breed that carved out a niche for themselves in a hostile environment. Like many people who have had their character forged by adversity, Lee can’t quite let go of the past. Times have changed, the world has moved on, and Lee has risen to become a respected man in his community, yet he still retains an affinity for the rough and tumble days of his youth. The two sons, Ed (Tab Hunter) and Davy (James Darren), who he’s brought up alone – he appears to be a widower – have learned to address him by his first name, a clear attempt by this man to hang onto the identity he possessed in earlier times. On the surface, Ed seems closest in character to his freewheeling father, while Davy is gentler and more considerate. The story naturally deals with the contrast between Ed and Davy, but the real thrust of it all is the relationship both brothers have with their hard-as-nails father. Lee is a man of rigid principles, his own principles mind, and very firm ideas about the way a man ought to behave, and thus how he should raise his boys. Lee’s whole philosophy is built around the idea of standing on one’s own feet and accepting favours from no man; early on he berates Ed for accepting the ranch foreman’s offer to rub down his horse. This kind of tough individualism is an almost constant feature of the western, and it’s an admirable enough trait as far as it goes. Yet, taken too far, this tends to result in a degree of alienation and social isolation, particularly as the advance of civilization gradually renders the notion less desirable. If Lee has trouble getting to grips with this, then the problem is multiplied tenfold when it comes to Ed. In his eagerness to emulate the past glories of his illustrious father, Ed has both absorbed these teachings and twisted them around in the process. The result is that courage, determination and independence of spirit have distorted themselves into bravado, violence and cruelty. In his quest to outstrip his father’s achievements Ed is driving himself beyond the bounds of acceptable behaviour. We get to see examples of his arrogance, insensitivity and casual racism from he beginning, and it’s not long before this unsavoury combination leads to the killing of a half-breed hireling. From this point on, the movie charts Ed’s inexorable moral descent as his father and brother look on, powerless to haul this increasingly uncontrollable young man back from the edge.
Phil Karlson spent the majority of his directing career overseeing B movies, and made a number of very classy crime and noir films throughout the 50s. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that he brought some of that dark moodiness and pessimism to Gunman’s Walk, thematically, if not visually – although there is a sequence in the jail towards the end that has a look straight out of the classic film noir handbook. The emphasis on these fractured family relationships has a relentlessly downbeat tone that sets the movie a little apart from the usual genre pieces. It’s been stated before that the classic westerns of the 50s were guided by the idea of redemption for the protagonists. It could be argued that this is achieved in some small measure by the end, but the traumatic nature of the developments leading up to this point suggest to me that it will be short-lived. The way I see it, the character of Lee is left so emotionally devastated by the end of the movie that he’s essentially finished and washed up as a man. The final image does indicate that progress has been achieved, but only by reaching closure and burying the past and those associated with an outmoded way of life. As such, this is very much a bittersweet triumph; the next generation (Davy and his half-Sioux sweetheart) setting off to face the future and the final nail hammered into the coffin of the closing frontier.
Understandably enough, this movie is dominated by two strong central performances, those of Van Heflin and Tab Hunter. Of the two, Van Heflin had the more complex role and probably did the better work. He had to convey a range of emotions throughout, and also maintain a level of control and discipline consistent with playing a man of such iron resolve as Lee Hackett. As I alluded to earlier, his was not an altogether sympathetic part – the ingrained racism of his character, and his belief that he’d earned the right to be above the laws and conventions of lesser men is a bit hard to swallow. However, by the time we get to the final scene, and are confronted with a man whose spirit has been comprehensively broken, it’s difficult not to feel for him. The fact that the viewer is able to regard Lee in this light, after he’s displayed such negative traits, says much about the skills and abilities of Van Heflin. Angry and confused young men were very much in vogue in Hollywood in the 50s, and Tab Hunter’s role slots neatly into that category. The cause of this rebel is to be as big a man as his father, to surpass him in every way he can. Hunter seemed to be having a good time with the excesses of his character and did well with the sudden mood swings and violent outbursts. In retrospect, some of the era’s representations of misunderstood youth can be toe curlingly self-conscious and quite painful to watch, but Hunter managed to avoid the inherent pitfalls and created a convincing portrait of a guy with a hair-trigger temper struggling to emerge from the massive shadow of his father. As the younger brother, James Darren isn’t bad, although the script doesn’t call on him to take an especially active part and he’s pushed into the background somewhat. Kathryn Grant was the only woman in the movie and she too is mostly sidelined by the conflict between father and son that’s at the heart of the story. She does get one good scene though, at the hearing into her brother’s death. She hits just the right note when she demonstrates her indignation at the travesty of justice by flinging Lee’s blood money on the courtroom floor, and the contempt in her voice is palpable as she speaks contemptuously of the pervading racist attitudes of all those around her. The supporting cast also features a notable turn from perennial western lowlife Ray Teal; his small role as a chiseling horse dealer with a strong line in unctuous treachery is pivotal to the development of the plot.
Unfortunately, the two current DVD editions of Gunman’s Walk are problematic. Sony first released the film in Spain and, although it’s not a bad transfer, the disc is a non-anamorphic letterboxed affair. Shortly afterwards, Sidonis in France put the title out with an improved anamorphic scope transfer. However, and this is a major black mark as far as I’m concerned, the disc forces Spanish subtitles on the English language track. The only way around that issue is to make a backup copy with the subtitles disabled. This is particularly irritating when you bear in mind that the presentation is satisfactory in every other respect. Anyway, the movie is a very strong addition to the long list of quality westerns that came out of the 50s. All of the themes it touches on have been addressed in other productions but this picture handles them in a measured and mature way. Furthermore, Phil Karlson’s tight direction, anchored by two fine performances, ensures that everything blends together seamlessly. It’s an enjoyable and thoughtful western that pays off with a powerful emotional punch. I strongly recommend that genre fans give it a go – I can’t see it disappointing anyone.