Rogue Cop

Patterns, connections, trends and interdependence. These are things which draw my attention in general, and in cinema in particular. I’d like to think that visitors to this site have noticed this from time to time, and I’d be even more pleased if I’d managed to pique the interest of some by following up on certain threads that suggest themselves to me. Redemption is the one theme that I guess stands out from the crowd of other ideas, and it’s certainly the driving force behind Rogue Cop (1954), which I want to focus on today. I’d also like to touch on what I feel is a defining feature running thorough 1950s cinema as a whole and maybe then cast an eye over the shape and texture of noir at that time. So yes, it ought to be clear enough that I’m setting myself  a nice uncomplicated and unambitious task with this one…

Rogue Cop opens in an understated and matter-of-fact manner, with the credits running over a series of background images of cops going about their daily business in the city, making and taking calls, driving squad cars and all seguing into a nighttime scene where the sirens scream and the neon flickers. Throughout this it remains everyday, mundane and routine, even as a showgirl drifts out of the theater where she’s been working and makes her way to a penny arcade. Even there the drug deal she’s intent on completing is nothing out of the ordinary, nor indeed is the casual filleting of her pusher by a competitor. So there you have it, life and death played out as just another unremarkable event in an overlit and gaudy locale – the whole process as cheap and throwaway as the scene of the crime itself.

Yet, in plot terms, this is more than just another statistic to write up in the records. Chance, that old staple of any self-respecting film noir, steps in and sees to it that the killer who is coolly departing should bump into a young patrolman. This man on the beat is Eddie Kelvaney (Steve Forrest) and while he doesn’t make a pinch he does get a good enough look at the knife man to be able to make an identification. Had he not been there at that moment, or had another less ethical man been pounding that particular pavement, the tale would have meandered off in a different direction.  But he was there and the fates would also have it that his older brother Chris (Robert Taylor) is a detective with a lot of shady contacts, with the healthy bank balance and unhealthy reputation that brings. Pressure will be brought to bear on Chris to ensure Eddie toes the line and forgets who he saw and where he saw him. Were it only about Chris himself, this would not be a problem; however, Eddie is an idealist and a man who holds firm to the principles of decency his late father lived by, and which his brother professes to regard with contempt. What follows is that age old contest, the battle for the soul of a man with temptation taking place in an urban wasteland with winking lights as opposed to the deserts of antiquity.

Rogue Cop was adapted from a novel by William P McGivern, the man who provided the source material for Fritz Lang’s punishing examination of corruption and abusive relationships The Big Heat. Similar to Lang’s movie the noir quotient of this production stems as much, and probably more, from the theme as it does from the visuals. While John Seitz shoots the whole thing beautifully and earned himself an Oscar nomination for cinematography, it’s not got that painted shadows look that the term film noir so often conjures up. It’s got a brighter appearance in general and director Roy Rowland aims for the kind of pared down and uncluttered visual simplicity that Lang had been working on.

Is it possible then that the look here was a reflection of the thematic shift taking place within film noir itself? Noir in the 1940s felt as though it concerned itself primarily with disenchantment and compromised morality on a personal, and thus more intimate, level. Moving into the next decade saw a cleaner and simpler aesthetic gain prominence, which might suggest that thematically it was drifting towards a more sharply defined ethical conundrum. The focus was increasingly on decay in institutional terms, and the ethical deficiencies in broader society. A good deal of the action is situated in flash night clubs and swish apartments, well-lit and with the type of surface gloss that is deceptive – a store-bought glamor that seeks to blind us to the real cheapness, the shabby abuse and exploitation lurking behind it all.

There are those who will tell you a film noir has to have a femme fatale. Personally, I feel she is a common or typical feature but not an essential one, although I do think a strong and pivotal female role in general is vital. Rogue Cop offers two such parts – Janet Leigh’s jaded entertainer desperate to escape the sins of the past and, giving a terrific performance, Anne Francis’ boozy moll who suffers grievously for a moment’s tactlessness. These two are key to the development of the plot and in determining the path Taylor’s dirty cop will follow.

Taylor is, right from the beginning, a man trying to save himself, a man hungry for redemption, even if he doesn’t realize it till later. The fact remains though that the itch is there, the mask of cynicism barely disguising the intensity of his concern over his brother’s welfare. He’s only a short step away from acknowledging his desire to find a way out – and that tipping point is achieved first by the fate of his brother, later intensified by the treatment of Francis, and finally confirmed by the constancy of Leigh. It’s this spiritual quest that lends weight to the whole movie and lifts it above a mere run-of-the-mill critique of corruption. All of which had me wondering why exactly this theme of redemption is to be seen all through 1950s cinema. I’ve often written about it here in relation to the western, where it found perhaps its truest expression, but it transcended genre and is almost ubiquitous. Was it a reaction, albeit a delayed one,  to the war years? And did it climax at or around the end of the decade? My feeling is that it had – with the closing of the classic noir cycle and the gradual winding down of the golden age of westerns. Still, this is just a feeling on my part and others may be able to offer a more definitive answer.

Of course Rogue Cop, being released in 1954, wasn’t coming at the end of any cycle. In fact, it signaled a return for at least one person to bigger pictures than had been the case for a while. That person was George Raft, one of the early stars of the gangster movie whose star slowly faded through the 1940s. I’ve heard it said – although I’d be happy to be corrected on this if anybody knows different – that Raft at the height of his fame was very choosy about his roles and became very cautious about the image he was projecting on screen. Essentially, he was said to be turning down anything that involved a persona which was less than squeaky clean, something which always struck me as a singularly petty and counterproductive approach. As the chief villain here, Raft is very good indeed, full of malice and vindictiveness. Watching him get this across so successfully had me thinking about the secret of getting under the skin of a villain, of making or becoming a bad man on screen. That demands both self-confidence and humility, it requires that an actor be big enough in his soul to be comfortable playing someone genuinely small and mean of spirit. In short, it needs courage.

Unfortunately, Rogue Cop remains on the missing list as far as official releases on disc are concerned. It is easy enough to watch online in passable condition but it deserves to be available commercially. Whatever is holding that up, it’s not the quality of the movie itself. This is a superb 50s film noir with first rate performances all round from an excellent cast, and a solid script which offers plenty of food for thought while simultaneously raising a number of interesting questions.

The Moonlighter

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Over a sixteen year period, starting in 1940 and ending in 1956, Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck made four movies together, the most famous probably being Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. Their third collaboration, The Moonlighter (1953), was the only western and the least familiar of the titles. This is a film I’ve only recently caught up with, once again thanks to the assistance of regular contributor Jerry Entract, and I found it a slightly unfocused but generally enjoyable affair. Revenge and redemption, those two faithful old partners in so many westerns, dominate but one is only half explored before being quietly dropped while the other is slipped in as though an afterthought. My feeling is that if these two themes had been more fully, or at least more consistently, developed, then The Moonlighter would have been a much stronger piece of work.

Wes Anderson (Fred MacMurray) is the moonlighter of the title, a rustler who operates by night, and his opening narration places the action at the beginning of the 20th century, just as the frontier is about to finally close. As he tells us, civilization about to consign the myth of the wild west to the pages of history, but the beast’s claws haven’t been filed down totally yet. The concept of frontier justice still holds sway with some, and the crime of rustling continues to arouse strong feelings and attract harsh punishments. As Anderson sits in jail awaiting trial, a lynching party is arriving in town, impatient and aggressive. This first act of the film is the most powerful, soulful and threatening, and setting up a situation packed with potential. There’s an almost noirish, and indeed nightmarish, tone as the mob forces its way into the jail to demand its pound of flesh. There’s to be no heroic last-minute rescue as a man is mercilessly beaten, dragged from his cell, and hanged without ceremony. Only it’s the wrong man, the fates having conspired to save a guilty man while simultaneously dooming an innocent one. Anderson has been handed a new lease on life but with a bitter little proviso attached – his sense of guilt twisting itself into a thirst for revenge. However, it’s at this point, with the story part of the way down an intriguing avenue, that the focus of the script shifts and revenge drifts away to be replaced by, amongst other things, greed. With Anderson forced to rest up and recuperate in his old family home, other characters are added into the mix: Rela (Barbara Stanwyck), his former love is introduced along with his brother Tom (William Ching). This creates the possibility of a romantic triangle although it doesn’t really work out that way. Instead we meet Cole Gardner (Ward Bond), an old outlaw associate of Wes’ who is keen to talk him into going back into business. I won’t spoil the plot by revealing more about how it all pans out except to say that Wes gets to earn his redemption the hard way, suffering significant personal losses before regaining his sense of honor in the end.

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The Moonlighter was written by Niven Busch, a man known for his fondness for grand passions and dark psychology. The film hints at this, or perhaps flirts with it, both in the terrific opening and later in the relationship between Wes and Rela. Yet it doesn’t come off successfully; there’s none of the high melodrama of Duel in the Sun or The Furies, nor enough of the darkness of Pursued. Now I like Busch’s work, although I understand if it’s not to everyone’s taste, and the way it has of burrowing into the minds and motivations of characters. The main problem with The Moonlighter is that it never goes far enough, all the ingredients are present and paths are started on but abandoned or strayed from before the themes have a chance to breathe and expand. Then when the redemptive aspect kicks in at the end it feels rushed and loses some of its impact as a consequence.

The director was Roy Rowland, examples of whose work I’ve looked at here in the past, and his handling of the material is patchy too. Again, I refer back to the opening, where he and cinematographer Bert Glennon hit just the right chord and conjure up an atmosphere that’s menacing and quite poignant. But his direction lacks consistency, and as soon as the action moves to the Anderson homestead there’s a flatness that reflects the loss of momentum in the script. The scene where MacMurray and Stanwyck meet after years apart only touches on their shared passion, the actors doing what they can with the dialogue, but it needs a spark and intensity that’s not achieved. Some of that does come as the story progresses, but I don’t feel it ever reaches the heights necessary to make the redemptive payoff work as well as it should.

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MacMurray often made a fine anti-hero or villain, in this case I’d say he was playing the former though. When required he could tap into a kind of weary cynicism, and that’s exactly how he starts out – we first encounter him lazing in his jail cell awaiting what he fully expects to be an appointment with the hangman. The weariness falls away later, anger, distrust and bitterness coming along to displace it and MacMurray keeps it credible all the time. He also hangs onto a touch of decency too, despite his character’s criminal nature, which is vital if his eventual change of heart is to be at all convincing. Stanwyck was playing one of her signature tough broads and she’s perfectly satisfactory, as usual, though the role doesn’t have the kind of depth or shading which could bring out the best in her. She’s said to have enjoyed making westerns and the rugged outdoors stuff attracted her, something she got to indulge in here especially during the well filmed climax. Ward Bond doesn’t make an appearance until around the halfway mark, but impresses as the unscrupulous outlaw seeking out a partner to facilitate his schemes. Bond was typically most effective as bluff down-to-earth types or as an imposing physical threat. The movie gives him the chance to show off both of these aspects, moving smoothly from one to the other as the plot advances. Personally, I found William Ching the weakest link – his part is an important one yet he never really convinced me as the brother living in MacMurray’s shadow. In support, there are nice, if short-lived, turns by the likes of John Dierkes, Jack Elam, Charles Halton and Morris Ankrum.

The Moonlighter has been released as an MOD DVD in the US as part of the Warner Archive and is certainly worth a look. The turn of the century setting is potentially interesting but not a lot is made of this – the only real reference to the changing times is that Bond’s plan involves exploiting the possibilities afforded by the new motor cars. The movie was shot in 3D but I don’t know if that would add much to it (I’m no particular fan of the process myself) and it plays fine in standard 2D. Taken as a whole, the film is entertaining enough although it did need a script which retained a stronger focus and more character analysis. It starts off well and does have its moments later but meanders a little despite the short running time.

 

 

Gun Glory

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I happened to be involved in an online discussion elsewhere today, and the talk turned to how certain movies can be categorized. To be specific, we were chewing the fat over those films that fall at the extreme ends of the spectrum, the great and the shockingly bad. Now I’ve long been of the opinion that few movies truly belong in either of those positions; the vast majority occupy some kind of middle ground, with some of us drawn to particular virtues that appeal to us while others are less enamored. I’ve pointed out before that I’m a little uncomfortable with the term “masterpiece”, mainly due to all its high-pressure implications, but I’m no fonder of the label “turkey” either. Anyway, all of this put me in the mood to hammer out a short piece on a film that I think it’s fair to call average. Gun Glory (1957) is what I would think of as an extremely typical film, nothing special but entertaining enough and with at least a handful of positive things in its favor.

The return of the prodigal is an ancient story, although the variant in question here sees the father rather than the son cast as the errant figure. Tom Early (Stewart Granger) is a man who abandoned his wife and son, a gambler and gunman of great notoriety. The film opens with this character making his way back towards the home he has long neglected. A brief stop off in the neighboring town shows that his reputation precedes him, but his optimism remains undimmed as he happily purchases a trinket as a gift for his wife. However, his arrival at his ranch brings him down to earth and back to reality with a jolt. His son, Tom Jr (Steve Rowland), is less than impressed, and then there’s the sickening realization that the woman he once loved has passed away in his absence. Still and all, blood ties are powerful and the father and son come to a kind of edgy understanding – the wrongs and mistakes of the past can never be forgotten, but it’s human nature to try to forgive and move on. Therefore, the two men make an effort to piece together their relationship, Tom Sr being especially keen to win back the trust and respect of his son that he so casually squandered before. He even takes in a lonely widow, Jo (Rhonda Fleming), as his housekeeper in an attempt to restore something of a family atmosphere. The western genre is packed with stories of men desperate to outrun their past ans sooner or later these guys come to realize that it’s an impossible task – the past must be faced squarely and dealt with before any door to the future can be opened. In this instance, the past is represented by the arrival of a ruthless cattleman, Grimsell (James Gregory), bent on driving his herd through town and obliterating it in the process. As such, it’s both an opportunity and a challenge for Tom Early Sr – an opportunity to prove himself and do something decent, but also a challenge to his desire to leave his violent ways behind him.

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Roy Rowland was what you might call an efficient director of programmers, movies that were a cut above B pictures but just shy of being A list features. He handled a couple of pretty good westerns in the 1950s (Bugles in the Afternoon and The Outriders) alongside a very strong film noir (Rogue Cop). Films like this called for a brisk, no-nonsense style and Rowland was well suited to that kind of role. A good proportion of the action takes place indoors but there are opportunities for location work too, and the director showed that he was more than capable of composing attractive setups for the wide lens. Gun Glory, which was adapted from a novel by Philip Yordan, isn’t one of those non-stop action movies but when it does come along, Rowland shoots it well with a good sense of spatial awareness. More than anything though, this follows the classic 50s western template of a remorseful man seeking to make amends for his errors.

Stewart Granger was building on his successful western role in Richard Brooks’ The Last Hunt which had been made a year before. He seemed very much at ease in the frontier setting, showing off some highly impressive horsemanship skills in the process. In fact, it’s Granger’s strong central performance that is the greatest strength of the film. It’s clear enough that he’s playing a man carrying around a heavy burden of guilt – blaming himself for not being there when his wife died, and for failing to support his son during his formative years – but he never lays it on too thick. Still, there can be no doubt how he feels about himself; the short scenes of him visiting his late wife’s grave tell us all we need to know without the need for dull, expository dialogue. Rhonda Fleming was given a strong part in the movie as the widow who works her way into the lives and hearts of the two Early men. Her role served the important function of drawing both of these men out and helping them achieve a true reconciliation. I think it’s also worth pointing out the romance that develops between the characters of Granger and Fleming is nicely judged, mature and realistic. To be honest, I felt that Steve Rowland (the director’s son) presented one of the weak links in the film. Again, the part of Tom Jr was a pivotal one yet Rowland never felt convincing to me. As for the supporting players, Chill Wills pops up once again and gives a warm performance as the town preacher and one of Granger’s few allies. James Gregory was another of those familiar faces, a character actor many will recognize straight away, and he provided a nice foe for Granger. There’s also a semi-villainous role for Jacques Aubuchon as a crippled storekeeper with his eye on Fleming.

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Gun Glory is available as a MOD disc from the Warner Archive in the US and there’s also a Warner/Impulso pressed disc from Spain. I have that Spanish release, and it presents the film very strongly. The transfer is anamorphic scope taken from a very clean and sharp print. I can’t say I was aware of any noticeable damage and the colors are well rendered. All told, there’s really nothing to complain about on that score. The disc offers no extra features whatsoever and subtitles are removable, despite the main menu suggesting that this is not the case. Anyway, we get a very attractive looking film with two good performances  from the stars. The story itself is engaging enough, although there’s nothing on show that genre fans won’t have seen before. As I mentioned above, the direction is capable and professional without being particularly memorable. All told, this is a moderate western – interesting and entertaining but not exactly essential.