Foxfire

On the outside looking in doesn’t do anybody any good.

That one casual line in Foxfire (1955), spoken by one of the most hard done by and neglected characters in the movie as it happens, goes a long way towards catching the spirit and flavor of the entire picture. In a sense, all of the characters are outsiders in their individual worlds, some by chance and others by choice or design. This is a strong theme, one many of us will be able to identify with at some point in our lives and thus a solid bedrock on which to construct this story which I’d say is three parts melodrama and one part modern western. That part picks up on and weaves into the blend perhaps one of the more interesting, challenging and progressive thematic threads to be found in the fabric of the 1950s western, the clash of cultures which was inevitable in a new land and the dramatic tension growing out of that.

A desert highway, one of those arrow straight and seemingly endless thoroughfares that we viewers have traveled many times. Our companion on this occasion is a lone woman, Amanda Lawrence (Jane Russell), speeding along until she gets a flat tire. With no help available, she sets off on foot, burdened with what look like the assorted fripperies of a shopping expedition. There can’t be any doubt that this chic and carefully coiffed lady is very much an outsider in the primal landscape, a refugee from 5th Avenue cast adrift in the dust and heat of the southwest. Then out of that shimmering haze comes a jeep carrying two men – miner Jonathan Dartland (Jeff Chandler) and doctor Hugh Slater (Dan Duryea) – and we’re off. Amanda is clearly taken with Dartland and he’s at least interested in her.  What follows is a love story but it’s not a smooth one, and I think it’s questionable in the end what all of the protagonists are in love with. In fact, despite the relatively neat conclusion, those questions are only partly answered and I feel there’s a suggestion that they will rear their heads again.

As far as I can see, the characters are being pulled in different directions partly by their disparate backgrounds and partly by their status as outsiders. Beginning with Dartland, or Dart as everyone refers to him. We learn very early on that he is half Apache, with a mother who has returned to the reservation and wholly integrated herself back into tribal life after the death of her husband. He is forced to endure some bigoted and prejudiced attitudes – including one thoughtless gaffe on the part of Amanda before she learns about his heritage – but tends to brush them aside. He insists it means nothing to him but a couple of understated moments call this into question – the brief flash of hurt in his eyes when Amanda makes that crack about Indians, and then later the diffidence and self-consciousness he displays when entering the club for their first date, not to mention the haste with which he beats his retreat.

For all Dart’s claims of not being affected by his background, he’s very much aware that he is outside looking in. And he cannot fully break with his past; he avoids talking about his mother’s people, keeps his memories quite literally locked away and reacts with petulant sensitivity to their discovery. Nevertheless, the tone of his relationships, especially with Amanda is dictated by his upbringing, his instinctive prioritizing of self-reliance as well as his resorting to the physical as opposed to the emotional act of love when confronted with conflict. As I mentioned  above, I’m unsure whether he’s confident what he’s in love with – his wife or his ambition, and that siren song of kith and kin holds a powerful attraction.

What of Amanda? Is she any less an outsider? A socialite on vacation drawn to something attractive, and she does refer to Dart time and again as pretty in a neat subversion of traditional objectification. She labors hard to adapt to the harsh conditions of the mining town and also has to deal with the whispers of her own past tempting her to throw it all up in favor of the ease and plenty she was accustomed to. Again, does she really know what she wants – the rugged ideal of her imagination or the the reserved figure of reality?

You can always tell a script has depth when it adds meat to the bones of the supporting characters ; this one is from the pen of Ketti Frings, who had already written a few very good films noir as well as another Joseph Pevney / Jeff Chandler picture Because of You, and I’m keen to track that one down now. Dan Duryea’s boozy doctor could have been a mere caricature, a sidekick with a bottle who bumbles in the background. However, the character isn’t written with such broad strokes, there are layers present which are only gradually uncovered. He doesn’t truly belong either, another blow in from another world, a drunk as a result of personal trauma and casting around for a means to escape his circumstances. Duryea excelled at playing heels and it’s therefore not much of a surprise when his cunning and manipulative side rises to the surface. The one who arguably suffers this most, albeit with almost superhuman stoicism, is his nurse/lover played by Mara Corday. Like Dart, she is half Apache yet the barriers separating her from white society are even more entrenched. There’s something both outrageous and touching about her quiet patience and devotion to a man who habitually neglects her to the point of naked disrespect. Then there’s that wedding scene, where she is looking in in every sense, relegated to a place outside in the company of hookers and other undesirables. She is in a very real way a peripheral figure and is assigned only a limited amount of screen time, but her presence and its effect on the viewer is significant. Somehow, the casual acceptance (by herself as well as by the other characters, and perhaps even more so on her own part) of her regular social exclusion and the flippant exploitation of her affections do as much to highlight prejudice as some of the more direct and overt references involving  Dart.

I’ve watched and featured a number of Joseph Pevney movies this year and Foxfire is probably the most enjoyable one so far. I appreciated the understated way the drama unfolds and this is particularly true of the key scenes. The film has that appealing look that is so characteristic of Universal-International productions and William Daniels’ Technicolor cinematography honestly is quite breathtaking at times. The setting matters too, it feels entirely appropriate in this case that everything revolves around a mining settlement in the Arizona desert. The location offers a tangible link to the classic western and then there is that sense of the ephemeral, of a place hastily built amid a permanent wasteland – Chandler’s character dreams of making it a lasting settlement but there’s that nagging doubt again, as in his personal affairs, over how sure the foundations will be. Somehow the raw purity of the scorched backdrop offers a contrast to the transitory desires, ambitions, jealousies and angst of this group of people, none of whom appear to genuinely belong.

As for availability, there is a Blu-ray which has been released in the US and I understand it offers a fine presentation of the movie. Sadly, I’m Region B only when it comes to Blu-ray so I had to find other options. There has been a DVD release in Italy that is hard to fault as far as the picture quality is concerned. It might be standard definition but the 2.00:1 widescreen image is sharp as a pin, clean and colorful. Sure there are better melodramas to be found and the theme here may not have the kind of universal resonance that typically adds greatness. Nevertheless, this is a good movie, and it mostly worked for me, raising a number of issues I could relate to as well as providing an hour and a half of polished, solid entertainment. My recommendation is that anyone able to access this title should check it out.

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.

Hannah Lee

Today, we have another guest post from the pen of regular contributor Gordon Gates. This occasion sees him casting an eye over a rare and little seen western from the 1950s.
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Hannah Lee : An American Primitive (color) AKA Outlaw Territory (b/w) 1953
   Most actors at one time or another decide they should take a shot at producing. This could be because they wanted more creative control or a bigger piece of the pie, or both.
In 1953, actor John Ireland, his wife Joanne Dru and cinematographer Lee Garmes  combined to give production a shot. The one time Oscar nominated Ireland and the four time nominated, one time Oscar winner, Garmes, decided on a western.
A screenplay by Mackinlay Kantor was chosen. Kantor is known to film fans for The Best Years of Our Lives and Gun Crazy. The screenplay here is based on Kantor’s own novel, “Wicked Water”. This is based on the real life story of “regulator” Tom Horn. The team also decided to give the new gimmick of the time, 3-D a go in hopes of increasing box office.
Veteran cinematographer Garmes would handle the direction duties with Ireland shooting the odd scene.
The film stars, John Ireland, Joanne Dru, MacDonald Carey, Tom Powers, Frank Ferguson, Don Haggerty and Peter Ireland.
The story starts out in the town of Pearl City, Colorado at the end of the 1890’s. Gun for hire MacDonald Carey hits town looking for work. As it so happens, a group of local big ranch owners are in need of someone like him. They are having problems with squatters and rustlers taking their land and cattle.

Carey is offered a job as a “regulator” with 600 dollars a body pay. He is supplied with a list of names to be “regulated”. He is told that he must give the people named a chance to leave on their own. Carey leaves notes with the men telling them to clear out of the area. None do, and all soon end up with large alterations to their breathing arrangements.

Carey, a slightly nuts in the head type, uses a sniping rifle he used during the Spanish-American War in Cuba. Carey also takes a fancy to the local saloon keeper, Joanne Dru. Dru finds herself drawn to the hard man.

As the body count rises, some of the local people put out a call for a Federal Marshall. The town Sheriff, Tom Powers, does not seem all that interested in investigating.

Marshall John Ireland arrives in Pearl City to have a look into the killings. He digs around and figures that Carey is the main suspect. The killings started just after he arrived, and he is now flashing a large roll of cash. The cattlemen however want Carey to keep up his thinning of squatters etc. The cattlemen send another gunman, Don Haggerty to dispose of Ireland. Ireland though ends up filling Haggerty with lead instead.Now we find out that Ireland and Miss Dru know each other from years before. Ireland had sent Dru’s brother to prison for a long spell. Dru was sure that her brother was innocent. Ireland asks Dru to tell him all she might know about the latest shootings. Dru refuses to name Carey.

Of course the viewer knows there is going to be some more violence, with exchanges of lead, fists  and a steady supply of bodies ready for Boot Hill.

This is a stark, brutal western that is quite well done considering the obvious limited budget.
Cinematographer Garmes was known for lensing films like, The Jungle Book, Scarface, Detective Story, Angels Over Broadway, Nightmare Alley, Man With the Gun and The Desperate Hours.
Guns, fists, bottles, burning furniture and Miss Dru’s upper works are just a few of the items thrust at the viewer because of the original 3-D format. Ireland and Dru were marries at the time. Peter Ireland was John’s son from a previous marriage.
There are less than perfect prints up on YouTube. There is, I think, a better one on OK.RU
Gordon Gates

Hell’s Island

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!

Strangers When We Meet

This is a story about building a house. Is that too glib? Perhaps it sounds like it is, but it’s not meant to be. Would it be better if I said it’s about lack of fulfillment? Well, that’s true too; it’s a movie about both, and at  heart it’s a movie about people in love. All of these elements converge in Strangers When We Meet (1960), separate and unconnected when they initially come together, just as the title itself suggests, fuse and then diverge again at the close. Still, that climactic separation is not quite as clean or as complete as one might expect – after all, nobody and nothing can remain unchanged and unaffected by their experiences.

The post-war suburban idyll, that’s the image we’re first presented with. A peaceful and prosperous looking street gradually filling up with chattering parents and children bustling along to the bus stop. They gossip and exchange small talk, bid a temporary farewell to the kids and then start to drift apart again, off to resume their day as the strangers they had been a few minutes before. But not all of them; architect Larry Coe (Kirk Douglas) lets his gaze linger a touch longer on the demure yet voluptuous Maggie Gault (Kim Novak), and she discreetly returns that slow-eyed appraisal. So there we have it, those tiny hairline cracks in the veneer of prim middle-class respectability are suddenly exposed to the glare of the early morning sun. I don’t suppose it’s necessary to go into huge detail regarding the plot here. Suffice to say that Larry and Maggie are both less than satisfied in their lives; she is married to a stiff and undemonstrative man while he feels suffocated by the twin pressure of unrealized professional potential and a wife (Barbara Rush) he blames for stifling his creativity. Therefore, we have two people struggling with what they think are unfulfilled lives, ripe for romance and risk. The trigger for it all, what tips the balance, is the aforementioned house. Larry has been given a commission by a bestselling novelist (Ernie Kovacs)  to construct his dream home – something he seizes onto hopefully, as a drowning man will snatch at anything buoyant. It’s this that actually brings Maggie and Larry together, the building of the house proceeds alongside the blossoming of their illicit relationship, with its completion resulting in… Well, watch it yourself and see.

Director Richard Quine had been making a succession of mostly light comedies throughout the 1950s, with a couple of films noir such Pushover and Drive a Crooked Road thrown into the mix. Bearing that in mind, a melodrama in the mold of Douglas Sirk would appear to be an odd project for him to take on. For all that, it works very well indeed, with Quine tackling the serious themes with skill, tact and sensitivity. He never allows it all to become too broad, overheated or overwrought. And visually, he paints  from an exciting and evocative palette as he and cinematographer Charles Lang Jr light, frame and color the movie beautifully – from the marvelously tinted and shadowed first “date” for the clandestine lovers to the warm autumnal mellowness of the final scene, and through it all Ms Novak’s costumes progress from brazen scarlet to virginal white later in the movie, indicating a journey back to spiritual purity. All in all, an excellent handling of cinema’s own special syntax.

So to the writing, the solid core of any piece of filmmaking and frequently the area where the most significant strengths or weaknesses lie. In this case it comes from the pen of Blackboard Jungle writer Evan Hunter ( a man I’m more familiar with for his 87th Precinct books under his other pseudonym of Ed McBain) and adapted from his own novel. As I said in the introduction, it’s a movie about building a house and as such needs a firm foundation to anchor it. Indeed the characters themselves comment on a few occasions about the precarious placement of the house, half joking that it may all come crashing down. And here the architect is seen to be really constructing his building for the woman he loves; she appears to have inspired it and even if he’s not fully aware of this himself, I think it ought to be clear enough to the viewer. The tragedy here is that he’s building this for someone else to occupy, which leads back to the accompanying theme of lack  of fulfillment – the entire premise of his love can never truly be fulfilled.

Still, it’s not quite as bleak as all that. I can only offer my own interpretation but I think  that, ultimately, Hunter wants to put across the idea that the act of loving, both the physical and the emotional, are as close to personal fulfillment as anyone can hope to arrive. That it may not always be a success or be directed towards the right person is perhaps irrelevant. Some will be lucky, they will connect with that ideal or perfect match, but for others the knowledge that they were able to touch on a form of perfection in an imperfect situation may actually be enough, or at least be enough not to negate that love which was but briefly shared.

The last time I wrote about a movie starring Kirk Douglas was on the occasion of his 103rd birthday. Since then he has sadly left us but in doing so he also left behind a wonderful legacy of performances to be enjoyed. He was of course a front line star, a man who seemed as big as the movies themselves yet versatile enough to be wholly believable in whatever role he took on. As an increasingly embittered middle-class man drifting into dissatisfied middle age, he’s never less than credible.

There’s a nice degree of subtlety involved in Douglas’ differing interactions with both Barbara Rush and Kim Novak, as wife and mistress respectively. Both actresses bring a lot to the movie too, Novak has the bigger role with more screen time and she uses that enigmatic quality to good effect – incidentally, this was the third of four films she made for Quine – and the hesitancy and uncertainty she tapped into so well in Hitchcock’s Vertigo is in evidence again. Rush has to wait till the third act to get her big moments and handles them just fine, notably the creepy confrontation with Walter Matthau’s two-faced neighbor. Matthau himself is delightfully sleazy and oily in his role, taunting Douglas during the pivotal barbecue scene before later making his move on Rush in the literally tempestuous climax. A word also for Ernie Kovacs, someone else who was used on a number of occasions by Quine. There are only hints at his quirky comedic side as he gives us an interesting take on the self-doubting writer, a successful man who is every bit as much in search of fulfillment, primarily the artistic kind in his case, as any of the other characters. The fact is that pretty much everyone in the movie is living their own variation on the American Dream; the problem is it’s giving most of them sleepless nights.

I’m not sure if Strangers When We Meet has been released on Blu-ray – someone will no doubt set me straight on that – but it is freely available in multiple locations on DVD. I’ve had the Italian release for some time but only recently got around to it, and I’m very pleased that I did. The movie has, to my eyes anyway, been presented very well and the marvelous Scope  image is highly immersive. The fact is of course that the story itself draws you in with its touching and deeply affecting portrayal of lost people searching desperately for meaning, fulfillment and genuine love.  It really is a rich, layered and intelligent piece of filmmaking, a joy to watch and one I’ll most certainly be revisiting.

Nine Men

Last month, I was happy to host a guest post from contributor Gordon Gates, who also enjoyed the experience and expressed a desire to add some more on occasion. Seeing as he tends to focus on the kind of lesser known movies that I frequently enjoy but am not always familiar with, I’m delighted to offer him the space. This time he said I could choose between a number of (unnamed) options, and from those I went for the British war movie. So, read on…

Nine Men (1943)

During the Second World War pretty well all the countries involved put their film companies to work pumping out propaganda films. These would range from home front items to flag-wavers showing the various military arms at combat. This film is, in my opinion, one of the best productions to come out Britain during World War Two. Low budget for sure, but it is a winner. It is a neatly done film which uses service personnel in the roles.

This one starts with a Sergeant at a training barracks, Jack Lambert, telling the new recruits about a battle in North Africa he had been in. It is late 1941, Lambert along with eight others, are crossing the desert in a truck. The vehicle becomes bogged down in the deep sand. The men jump out to push. The truck is set upon by two German fighters who strafe the truck and men. Two of the men are wounded and the truck set alight.

The men manage to pull their weapons, a little ammo and a few canteens of water out of the blazing truck. The officer of the group is among the wounded. The section sergeant, Lambert, takes charge and they set off toward their lines carrying the two wounded.

A vicious sand storm brews up and the group loses their bearings. They, however, stumble onto a small abandoned building and take shelter inside. The storm blows its self out by the next morning. The officer has died of his wounds during the night and the men bury him outside the building.

As the British prepare to move on, a group of Italians soldiers approach them out of the desert. The British open fire killing several and putting the others to flight. Lambert is not sure just how many Italians there are, and decides to hole up for a bit. The other wounded man has taken a bad turn and needs further rest. The men watch the dunes for any enemy movement. The Italians at the moment are quite happy just sniping at the British.

The Italians try a quick assault just before dark, but are shot to pieces by the British who are firing from cover. They then try to have a go during the night with a light armored car. The one Brit, Grant Sutherland, though is a wiz with the Boys anti-tank rifle they have. He puts a few .55 caliber rounds into the armored car, disabling same. Lambert sends off one of the men towards the British lines to fetch help. The Brits can see the Italians gathering in ever growing numbers.

Lambert figures the Italians will soon try and swamp them. The Brits are out of water and down to about 15 rounds each. The other wounded man has also succumbed to his wounds. Lambert has two of the men take all the grenades and hide in the dunes outside the building. If the Italians attack, they are to toss all the grenades and scream like they are a dozen men. Hopefully they can bluff the Italians into thinking they are a large group.

The trick works and the Italians pull back. The Brits though are down to 4 or 5 rounds apiece. More Italians arrive and it looks like the end for Lambert and his group
Do the Brits stave off another attack? Or are they overwhelmed, killed or captured to become prisoners. Could perhaps the British arrive with reinforcements and save the day?

 

The rest of the cast includes. Fred Piper, John Varley, Jack Horsman, Bill Blewitt, Eric Miklewood, Richard Wilkinson and a 20 year old Gordon Jackson.

The director of this excellent film was Harry Watt. A former documentary film maker, (Target for Tonight) Watt keeps the pace even and shows a solid hand with the action sequences.

The lead, Jack Lambert, had a long film career being of screen from 1931 to 1975.
The film borrows some elements from the American film Sahara, which had used story ideas from the Soviet war film The Thirteen.
Most of the action was filmed at Margam Sands in Wales.
 
Gordon Gates

Flaming Feather

Having taken a break from writing about the genre for a bit, I think it’s time to return to the movies that have formed the bedrock of this site since its earliest days – westerns. Instead of getting into a thematically rich example, I’m going to look at a brisk, no-nonsense entertainment. Flaming Feather (1952) is exactly that; pacy, plot-driven and directed by perennial journeyman Ray Enright, the movie tells an enjoyable and undemanding story in an hour and a quarter, makes the most of its attractive locations and allows its accomplished cast to smoothly occupy the types of roles they were ideally suited to.

Arizona in the post-Civil War era and, as ever, there is a threat to the creeping influence of civilization. Sometimes the movies will focus on the menace of outlaw gangs, ruthless gunslingers, business rivals, or indigenous resistance. On this occasion, it’s something of a hybrid: a band of murderous and relentless Ute renegades who appear to be organized and led by a faceless white man, a man who is known only by the alias of the Sidewinder. Of course any villain, not least one who assumes the identity of a serpent, should sooner or later come face to face with his or her personal nemesis. The core concept that has been at the heart of all drama, from classical tragedy right down to popcorn fare such as Flaming Feather, is that one can only spend so long poking a finger in the eye of fate before some form of retribution descends. And so it is here that the Sidewinder pushes his luck once too often. By raiding and plundering the ranch of Tex McCloud (Sterling Hayden), he sets in motion a chain of events that will lead inexorably to his downfall. The hero in this case has the kind of implacable resolve that it’s best not to gamble against, and backing up his natural thirst for a reckoning is the small matter of a wager he has laid with a cavalry lieutenant (Forrest Tucker) regarding who is going to track down the perpetrator first. So we have a fairly straightforward setup, one which will be further complicated (though never unduly so) by the intervention of two women, Arleen Whelan & Barbara Rush, as it heads towards a memorable conclusion amid the ruins of Montezuma Castle.

Ray Enright was nearing the end of a long career by the time he took charge of Flaming Feather. He only had one more feature ahead of him (a routine George Raft effort) and came to this off the back of a run of solid and enjoyable movies with Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea and Audie Murphy, as well as the extremely disappointing Montana with Errol Flynn. Enright is never going to make anyone’s list of great directors, but he was a competent studio professional and, given the right script, cast and crew, was more than capable of producing a good quality piece of work. This movie saw him shooting a tight and trim script penned by Gerald Drayson Adams, taking advantage of the dramatic Arizona locations, and enjoying the contribution of top cinematographer Ray Rennahan. The tone throughout is consistent – straight drama with a light sprinkling of well-judged humor – and the big action set pieces in the third act are nicely handled.

One day I may well devote a post to distinctive voices and styles of delivery in the movies. I could turn out copy on Dan Duryea’s wheedling, Orson Welles’ cajoling, Burt Lancaster’s pitter-patter, and perhaps Sterling Hayden’s confrontational abruptness. The latter carries an air of authority, it doesn’t leave a great deal of room for maneuver or subtlety but it certainly evokes the straight-shooting hero who favors the direct approach. And this is exactly the type of performance Hayden delivers; there’s no shading or nuance here, just a portrait of a wronged man on a quest for justice, which is perfectly fine under the circumstances. Any consideration of instantly recognizable voices would have to include Victor Jory, a man whose characteristic tones typically put me in mind of someone trying to sell a used bottle of snake oil, and possessed of a face which seems always to have been a stranger to sincerity. He was born to play villains and I don’t imagine it’s going to constitute a spoiler of any consequence to say that this is the role he fulfills once again.

There are some actors who, when their names appear among the credits, give viewers a reassuring feeling, a comforting knowledge that, whatever else may be lacking, they can be depended on to turn in a strong performance. Forrest Tucker was such a figure; he was entirely at home in westerns and he brought an authenticity to the screen. If I have any complaint here, it’s that he’s missing from the action for far too long in the mid-section. Of the two female roles, Arleen Whelan gets the showier part as the duplicitous saloon girl and runs with it. Barbara Rush is given a simpler and more one-dimensional character, but bigger and better things were just around the corner for her, starting with Jack Arnold’s It Came from Outer Space and then a a number of fine movies for Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray. In support, we get Edgar Buchanan, Richard Arlen and a small but welcome part for Ray Teal.

Flaming Feather was made for Nat Holt Productions via Paramount. There are a few DVD releases of the film in European countries – Italy and Germany for sure, although there may be others. I have the German disc and it’s what I might term OK. The image is clear enough but it’s obviously using an older master and there is that softness and lack of “zip” associated with such sources. I’d like to see it scrubbed up and looking fresher but I imagine I might be in a for a long wait. As movies go, this isn’t going to change anyone’s world, alter one’s perceptions of the genre or stimulate any intellectual debate. What it will do, however, is provide a pleasant evening’s entertainment. I liked it.

The Sign of the Ram

As I was watching The Sign of the Ram (1948) I found myself idly wondering  – and I seem to have a great deal of time for idleness these days – about a number of things, perhaps the least significant of which was a growing curiosity about how many noir melodramas involved grand old houses perched precariously atop dramatic cliffs with boiling seas below. Sitting and admiring the atmospheric matte paintings in the background, I had  hunch there must be lots, but I think now that’s probably an exaggeration on my part. Whatever the number might actually be, it won’t alter the fact that this is a fine setting for a movie, the drama and violence of nature vying for attention with the emotional tempests raging within the quasi-Gothic old pile that houses a host of troubled souls.

Nothing is quite as it seems. Sherida Binyon (Phyllis Thaxter) arrives to take up her new position as secretary to poet Leah St Aubyn (Susan Peters), who is confined to a wheelchair. Her husband Mallory (Alexander Knox) is devoted to her and it’s quickly apparent that everyone in the house, all the children of Mallory’s first marriage, shares these sentiments. On the surface, it looks as though the sweetness and stoic rejection of self-pity on Leah’s part are the inspiration for this. Yet that’s not the case at all; Leah’s disability is the result of her rescuing the younger St Aubyn members during a storm off the coast, a heroically altruistic act which saw her cast upon the rocks and her body broken. Bit by bit, it becomes increasingly apparent that there’s an implicit, unspoken sense of guilt at the back of it all, a tacit acceptance that the lives snatched back from the grasp of the sea represent a debt that is hard to repay. In a savage twist on that old belief that saving a life leaves a person responsible for that life in the future, it is gradually revealed that Leah has manipulated her family’s gratitude into a corrosive form of guilt. And all the while the ocean booms against the Cornish rocks, biding its time till the payment it’s due can be collected.

 

Personally speaking, John Sturges isn’t the first name I’d think of were I asked to name a potential director of a film noir with a strong flavoring of Gothic melodrama. Of course Sturges, like all contract directors in the studio era, worked across a range of genres and was no stranger to film noir – Mystery Street, Jeopardy & The People Against O’Hara comprising a few. Nevertheless, I tend to think of westerns, and as to a lesser extent, war movies when he’s spoken of. He had a terrific eye for composition and the way the framing of a shot could be used to the greatest advantage. This would become ever more apparent in the future when he embraced and fully exploited the potential of the wide screen, and he knew how to place his actors on location too. The Sign of the Ram is set bound though and shot in Academy ratio so it could be said that it wasn’t playing to his strengths. While that may be true to some extent, he does take full advantage of what opportunities are afforded and, aided immensely by the masterly cinematography of Burnett Guffey, shoots from below an above to alter the mood and adds frames within frames to narrow the focus and fasten the viewers’ attention.

Looked at from the perspective of 2020, The Sign of the Ram doesn’t feature a cast full of the kind of names that are going to be immediately recognizable. Despite that relative unfamiliarity, it would be fair to say the film boasts an interesting lineup. The leading lady and prime mover of the whole piece is Susan Peters, and hers is a fascinating and tragic tale. With her star on the rise and only a year or so into her marriage to actor and future director Richard Quine, she was the victim of a hunting accident when a discarded gun discharged and the resultant wound left her paralyzed from the waist down. She was just 23 years old then and she would pass away at the age of 31. This film was to be her comeback and she is fine in her role, carefully hiding her true feelings from those around and only offering hints to her dissatisfaction in her private moments and through her constant chain-smoking. All told, it’s an excellent study of the consequences of manipulation driven by fear.

Alexander Knox is likely to be the best known face on the screen, his long and varied career highlighting his versatility – something I noted before when looking at his excellent work in an unfamiliar western setting in Man in the Saddle – and he gets across the decency of his character in a most believable fashion here. Phyllis Thaxter looks set to enjoy a more dynamic role as the new secretary, a point of view figure for the audience to identify with, but she seems to gradually drift towards the sidelines as the story unfolds. Peggy Ann Garner gets the showier part as the younger daughter in the family while Allene Roberts and Ross Ford are both perfectly acceptable as her siblings. Diana Douglas (the wife of Kirk Douglas at the time) comes more into the spotlight in the latter stages and there’s solid support from Dame May Whitty and Ron Randell.

The Sign of the Ram is a Columbia picture and, as far as I’m aware, has not enjoyed a release on disc anywhere. However, it can be tracked down for online viewing. I guess the lack of big name stars in the cast may have led to this movie being neglected. In addition, I sometimes think that Sturges work overall has not been had the critical attention much of it deserves. Perhaps his move into big budget, popular movies through the 1960s and then the variable quality of his later work is the reason. Whatever the reason, he’s highly rated on this site and I feel this film from early in his career is at least worth a look.

The Two Mrs Carrolls

Every once in a while it’s good to indulge oneself in something which is not overly taxing, which is largely escapist and, in this guy’s opinion anyway, with enough entertaining features to diminish the concomitant flaws. In short, I’m talking about the type of movie to take one’s mind of “stuff” in general. And let’s be honest, current events are leaving all of us in need of a bit of distraction. With that in mind I turned to The Two Mrs Carrolls (1947) the other night. My impression is that this movie  doesn’t enjoy a great reputation but for one reason or another, which I’ll have a go at articulating later, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for it.

The relationship between art and commerce has always been an uneasy one and it feels somehow apt that Hollywood, home to many a tempestuous real-life marriage itself, should train a glass on this dichotomy. Maybe it’s down to a familiarity with the inherent duality within itself that has led the film industry to occasionally cast a dubious glance in the direction of artists in general. Geoffrey Carroll (Humphrey Bogart) is certainly a case in point; before the first scene has ended the audience is left in no doubt whatsoever that here is a man who is a clear stranger to emotional stability. He’s been romancing his latest muse Sally (Barbara Stanwyck) while, initially unbeknownst to her, trying to figure out a way to extricate himself from his marriage. In short order we learn that he achieves that by the simple expedient of popping a dose of poison into his unwanted spouse’s milk. This leaves him free to marry the conveniently wealthy Sally. You might imagine that a new life in idyllic surroundings for himself and his young daughter (Ann Carter) would have chased away the demons. However, it becomes clear that the creative juices are drying up again, and then an attractive socialite (Alexis Smith) arrives on the scene…

As I said at the top of this piece, I don’t believe The Two Mrs Carrolls is regarded all that well. In fairness, there are problematic areas, the script and direction allows the story to sag a little in the middle, and both tone and performances can be uneven. On the other hand, the film is, for me anyway, an enjoyable slice of domestic suspense/melodrama. What’s more, it has that attractive visual aspect that I’ve noticed before in the work of director  Peter Godfrey (who has a cameo role as a racetrack chiseler) – both Christmas in Connecticut and Cry Wolf have a visual aesthetic which really appeals to me – and this boosts the pictures stock considerably. Allied to this is that studio recreation/imagining of a kind of fairy tale England (and Scotland in the brief opening scene) which either works for you or doesn’t. Personally, I’m a big fan of the artistry that goes into conjuring up that kind of illusion.

A final reason for my own fondness for the movie, and one I will freely admit is wholly dependent on the individual, relates to the time it is first seen. While I can’t put my finger on the exact time, it would have been somewhere in the mid-1980s when I came across this picture on TV. I would have been in the process of broadening my experiences of cinema (something which I can happily say continues to this day) and was on the lookout for as many Bogart features as I could find. The point is I caught this one at a time when it just clicked for me, and that feeling has never really deserted me ever since.

The Two Mrs Carrolls appears in the middle of an especially strong run of post-war movies starring Bogart. Looked at in comparison to some very strong and memorable work for Hawks, Huston and Daves, it’s perhaps not surprising that the movie is seen less favorably. That said, the star’s performance is inconsistent; the romantic interludes are handled just fine, as are the handful of incidences of hard-boiled insolence, while the manifestations of instability are seriously overcooked. Stanwyck, who rarely gave a sub-par performance at any point in her career,  fares better overall and handles the melodrama with greater assurance.

Alexis Smith had already played opposite Bogart in Conflict and vamps attractively here, trading barbs effectively in a memorable introductory scene. I guess most movie fans will recall Ann Carter chiefly, and quite rightly too, for her excellent playing in the haunting and rather touching Val Lewton/Robert Wise picture The Curse of the Cat People. She’s very good again in The Two Mrs Carrolls and her calm composure offers a neat contrast to some of the adults around her. Irish actors Pat O’Moore and Anita Sharp-Bolster are solid (and amusing) in support, and of course few performers ever bumbled quite so endearingly as Nigel Bruce.

The Two Mrs Carrolls was given a DVD release in the US via the Warner Archive, and clones later appeared  on the European market. As far as I’m aware it’s not been given the Blu-ray treatment as  yet, and I’m not sure  it has a high enough profile to warrant that anyway. Generally, it looks fairly strong in standard definition and I’m pleased just to have it and be able to watch it. Objectively speaking, it’s not one of Bogart’s or Stanwyck’s best movies and I’m not about to sell it as such. It does have its positives though, as is true for almost anything with these stars. Frankly, it’s a welcome piece of cinematic fluff at any time, and especially so at the moment.

Blu News – Blood on the Moon

A welcome bit of news just came to my attention so I thought it might be nice to pass it on here. Robert Wise’s noir-tinged western Blood on the Moon (which I wrote about here a good few years ago) has been announced as coming from the Warner Archive in April. From the Warner Archive Facebook page:

New 2020 1080p master from 4K scan of original camera negative!
BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948)
Run Time 93:00
Subtitles English SDH
Audio Specs MONO – English, DTS HD-Master Audio 2.0 – English
Aspect Ratio 1.37:1, 4 X 3 FULL FRAME
Product Color BLACK & WHITE
Disc Configuration BD 50
Extra Content: Theatrical Trailer (SD)

Director Robert Wise is at the helm as Robert Mitchum, Robert Preston, and Barbara Bel Geddes star in this taut Western thriller about a gunslinging drifter who realizes he’s been hired to be a villain. Out on the Texas frontier, Jim Garry (Mitchum) rides into town, quickly getting caught in a simmering confrontation between homesteaders and cattle ranchers. After accepting employment from an old mercenary friend, Tate Riling (Preston), Garry comes to realize that Riling has been manipulating the tensions between rancher John Lufton (Tom Tully) and the local settlers in a bid to swindle the Luftons out of their livestock. Garry becomes torn between his conscience and his greed until he finds himself falling for John Lufton’s daughter, the formidable Amy (Bel Geddes). Soon, the two old friends will face off in a bloody showdown from which only one will leave alive. Based on the novel Gunman’s Chance by Luke Short.