The Far Country

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And so I come to the last western made by James Stewart and Anthony Mann, not the last they did together but rather the last one to be featured on this site. For a long time I tended to look upon The Far Country (1954) as the least of the Mann/Stewart westerns but, having been challenged on that view in the past, I asked myself to reassess it. On reflection, I feel my initial stance was both unfair and even lacked a certain logic – after all, there really is no such thing as a lesser Mann/Stewart western. I also think I know why I once undervalued the film, and it’s essentially for the same reason I was sightly ambivalent at one time about the collaboration between actor and director that never was: Night Passage. In short, the film doesn’t have what I can only term the sustained intensity of the other westerns these two men made. Yet to latch onto that aspect is to do the film a huge disservice; where the other films have that sustained intensity The Far Country has more isolated instances of it, and this actually fits the development of the plot and theme perfectly.

Perhaps the most noticeable motif in the films of Anthony Mann is the way his characters are forever driving themselves upwards, striving to attain a higher place and sometimes overreaching themselves in the process. In The Far Country Jeff Webster (James Stewart) is pushing himself further up the globe from the off, from Wyoming to Seattle and on to the north – the Yukon. Webster is a trail boss, a man with a herd of cattle to bring to market. That he’s a hard and uncompromising man is evident from the first scenes where it’s plainly stated that he shot and killed two cowboys who tried to desert him on the way – although it’s later revealed that the deceased had also planned to take his herd with them when they left. Webster’s partner is Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan), a man of milder temperament whose ambitions stretch only as far as a ranch in Utah and a plentiful supply of coffee. One would have thought that having got this far, the worst of their trials lay behind these two men. However, that’s not to be. Gannon (John McIntire) is one of those conniving opportunists one often finds in border areas – he’s a man who uses the law, his version of the law that is, to ensure all profits accrue back to him. He seizes on the chance to confiscate Webster’s herd on a legal technicality that’s little more than a whim. However, Webster is no fool and when he’s offered the job of leading saloon owner Ronda Castle’s (Ruth Roman) outfit into Canada he turns it to his advantage. While Gannon is under the illusion that Webster is content to try his luck in the Canadian gold fields the latter snatches his herd from under his nose and jumps the border. So all’s well that ends well? Not exactly – Webster is a hard-nosed individualist, one of those men who look after themselves and leave the others to their own devices. However, the move north sees that isolationist position challenged. New friendships are forged – Rube (Jay C Flippen) and more especially the freckle-faced tomboy Renee (Corinne Calvet) – and with those come obligations, something Webster has assiduously avoided thus far. As first Ronda and then later the malignant Gannon set their sights on a piece of the action in the lucrative gold fields, Webster is forced to take stock of his previous philosophy of exclusively looking out for number one.

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The other Mann/Stewart westerns were mainly concerned with individuals haunted by their past, tales of revenge and redemption earned the hard way. The Far Country differs in the sense that the Stewart character isn’t a man directly dogged by a painful history. There is an allusion to a woman who wounded him emotionally, perhaps partially explaining his remoteness from those around him. However, there isn’t that sense of someone running from himself. Instead what we get is a representation of total detachment, a man who places self-interest above all else. For most of the movie Jeff Webster really isn’t all that nice a guy, he cares not a jot who gets hurt so long as his own interests are best served. And so the theme here is more one of renewal and rediscovery, setting it a little apart from the other revenge focused films. The Stewart character isn’t at war with himself, as so often seemed to be the case, although he is eventually forced to question his previous attitude. This is what, for me anyway, makes the film a bit different – the moments of intensity occur in brief flashes, at least until Webster’s hand is forced by Gannon’s cruelty. Of course the threat of brutality and abrupt violence that characterizes the Mann/Stewart westerns lurks just below the surface – it’s this (and also the warmth that springs from the feeling of community) which finally provokes Webster, and consequently allows him to get back in touch with his own humanity.

The Far Country gave Stewart the chance to display more of his trademark affability than his other westerns with Mann, though it remains of the slightly hard-edged variety. Those other films concerned themselves more with a reconciliation with the circumstances and situations arising out of a damaged past whereas here Stewart has to gradually come to terms with his own failings as a human being. As such, the characterization is quite different yet no less interesting. In place of a deep psychological trauma which colors his actions, Stewart has to confront an ingrained emotional detachment instead. The catalyst, as usual, is violence and humiliation, and the transformation – the path towards renewal – is no less dramatic.

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Naturally, everything revolves around Stewart’s character, but there’s plenty of good support from a fine cast. Walter Brennan had the lovable old coot thing nailed down by this stage in his career, and his turn as the coffee-obsessed partner provides a nice counterpoint to Stewart’s coolness. Brennan is the human face of the pair, the one audiences can most easily relate to and feel sympathy for. Corinne Calvet fulfills a similar function; there’s an amusing sweetness to this ingenue of the wilderness, although it lessens her impact as one half of the romantic interest. Ruth Roman, on the other hand, is a knowing, worldly figure – she’s arguably a better match for Stewart’s profit-minded cynic, but loses some of her allure as Stewart later finds himself examining his motives and allegiances. She’s actually one of the most interesting figures in the movie, retaining a degree of ambiguity throughout. However, there’s nothing at all ambiguous about John McIntire’s Gannon – he’s the real villain of the piece and positively glories in his iniquity and callousness. McIntire, along with Brennan, was one of the finest character actors of the golden age and it’s a genuine pleasure to see him sink his teeth into a role like this. Anthony Mann clearly liked working with Jay C Flippen – he used him often in his movies – and gave him another good role in The Far Country as the kind-hearted Rube with a fondness for the whiskey bottle. Already were looking at a pretty impressive battery of seasoned performers but when you bear in mind that the film also found parts for Robert J Wilke, Royal Dano, Harry Morgan, Chubby Johnson and Steve Brodie it ought to give an idea of the depth of talent involved.

The Far Country has long been available on DVD and really is due an upgrade to Blu-ray by now. Early editions in the US presented the film open-matte, but later pressings were in the correct widescreen ratio. I have the UK DVD, which was always the widescreen version, and it looks pretty good. William Daniels’ photography of the beautiful Canadian locations looks terrific while colors and sharpness are quite satisfactory. As I said at the beginning, there was a time when I tried to rate the Mann/Stewart westerns against each other but that’s a pointless exercise really. Over time I’ve come to understand that all of these films are great in their own ways – to try to compare them or view them as competing productions is to pick away at their greatness, and I honestly don’t want to do that. I held off writing about this film for ages, and for reasons which may appear foolish to others. Although I’ve seen all the Mann/Stewart westerns countless times I kind of liked the idea that there was still another one I had yet to feature. I didn’t like the feeling that I wouldn’t have the chance to write about another one – I got that same sense when I finished writing up the Boetticher/Scott pictures too – so I kept putting it off. Anyway, there it is. These films are among the finest the western genre has to offer – maybe I won’t be writing about them again but I’ll surely enjoy watching them, and I wholeheartedly recommend them to anyone who has yet to experience them.

 

 

Winchester ’73

The Naked Spur

The Man from Laramie

Bend of the River

The Black Book

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Recently, I’ve been watching a fair bit of film noir, and indeed mulling over and discussing exactly what does or does not constitute noir. And that brings me to a borderline case, a movie that flirts with the notion of film noir, has some of its recognizable characteristics, yet stops short of fully satisfying the criteria. The Black Book (1949) was among the handful of movies Anthony Mann made just before he embarked on his influential and complex cycle of westerns. The film is a historical piece, a mystery/espionage thriller whose visual style is pure noir but whose theme lacks the ambiguity to allow me to comfortably place it in that category.

1794 – France is gripped by revolutionary fervor and the Reign of Terror, presided over by Robespierre (Richard Basehart), is at its zenith. The series of bloody purges have led to an atmosphere of distrust, insecurity and instability. With Robespierre on the verge of absolute power, plans are afoot to overthrow him while there’s still time. But that time is short; within days Robespierre will have maneuvered himself into an unassailable position and the opportunity will have passed. Enter Charles D’Aubigny (Robert Cummings), an agent acting on behalf of the exiled and imprisoned Lafayette. D’Aubigny’s mission is to infiltrate Robespierre’s inner circle, by means of impersonation, and see that the voices of dissent are provided with the means to remove the would-be tyrant before he has them silenced forever. This task is both aided and complicated by two unexpected factors. Firstly, there’s the presence of Madelon (Arlene Dahl), D’Aubigny’s former lover and his principal contact with the anti-Robespierre faction. And then there’s the black book of the title: Robespierre’s death list, a sinister little volume containing the names of those marked down for execution as and when the whim strikes him. It’s this book which forms the basis of Robespierre’s power, it’s impossible to be sure whether one’s name is included and that uncertainty weakens any potential opposition. However, the book has gone missing and the hunt is on to retrieve it before a critical meeting of the ruling Convention. Whoever gains possession of the black book holds the balance of power – able to install Robespierre as absolute dictator or to destroy him completely.

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Personally, I feel The Black Book functions well as an allegory for the time it was made. WWII had ended a few short years before and the memory of the terror and slaughter was still fresh in the minds of everyone. It’s no great stretch to see the film as a warning against the dangers of dictatorship; even as the world had witnessed the end of one hateful regime another has risen up to take its place. The purges and sham trials depicted in the film bring to mind the repression and fear of the Stalinist eastern bloc. However, I think too that the critique of the cult of personality and the atmosphere of betrayal and backstabbing can also be viewed as a subtle reminder that even stable democracies can be manipulated by political opportunists under certain circumstances – the paranoia accompanying the red scare of the post-war years was already rearing its head in the US.

Anthony Mann built his reputation on his crime and noir pictures and that influence was carried through to a greater or lesser extent in most of his subsequent films. Thematically, his westerns continued to be psychologically complex even though the visuals (once he began to work in color) moved in a different direction. The Black Book, photographed by John Alton, is much more straightforward when it comes to theme and characterization. The hero is simply heroic; there’s no internal conflict struggling for dominance of the character and no sense that fate has the odds stacked against him. From the viewer’s perspective it’s always very clear who the good guys and the bad guys are, even if some of the motives aren’t quite so apparent. Still, the movie looks like a textbook example of film noir. Mann’s composition and Alton’s lighting create a dark and dangerous world for the characters to inhabit: high overhead shots suggestive of detachment, low angle ones bringing ceilings into focus and emphasizing a cramped, restrictive world, deep and impenetrable shadows slicing menacingly across faces or threatening to consume them totally.

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Robert Cummings is generally thought of as a lightweight lead and sometimes dismissed on those grounds. I’ve always liked his crime/mystery roles though  – The Chase, Sleep, My Love, Saboteur, Dial M for Murder – and have rarely found him disappointing. If anything, I feel his natural charm lends a touch of vulnerability to his characters. I have no complaints about Cummings’ performance in The Black Book, he handles the tense, suspenseful scenes well and is convincing enough when the need for action arises. Arlene Dahl is good too as the former lover who now has to work closely with the man she once abandoned. A rekindled romance does develop but it never has that tacked on feel that can make such plot devices tiresome. That this aspect works is largely down to Dahl, her coquettish insolence is both refreshing and attractive. Richard Basehart too is very effective as Robespierre; there’s a stillness and calm about him that becomes quite unnerving, only the glittering eyes hinting at the murderous zealot lurking within. As good as the leads are, Arnold Moss steals practically every scene he appears in as Fouché, the oily, Machiavellian politician who’s naked self-interest is a wonder to behold. In support, there are nice turns delivered by Charles McGraw, Beulah Bondi and Norman Lloyd.

For a long time the only way to see The Black Book was via ropey transfers of battered prints. However, Sony put out a MOD disc in the US that seemed to far surpass all previous releases. I never picked up that disc but when Koch in Germany announced their own pressed release of the title I decided to bite. I don’t know if the Koch disc is derived from the same source as the US edition but I can certainly say that I’ve never seen the movie looking better. There are isolated speckles but the print used is in pretty good shape and shows off Alton’s photography to very good effect. Additionally, this disc has the full, uncut version of the movie (as does the US MOD edition) restoring the censored scene that was absent from many of the earlier releases. There are no subtitles offered, just the original English soundtrack and a German dub. Having suffered through some appalling transfers of this film in the past, it’s a real pleasure to be able to see it looking crisp and clean. It may not be proper film noir, but any fan of that style of cinema should get a lot out of this movie – Mann and Alton present some stunning and memorable images. Bearing in mind there’s a satisfying and exciting story here too, I have no hesitation in recommending the film.

 

 

Bend of the River

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You’ll be seeing me. You’ll be seeing me. Every time you bed down for the night, you’ll look back to the darkness and wonder if I’m there. And some night, I will be. You’ll be seeing me.

If you watch enough westerns, from almost any era, it soon becomes apparent that certain themes and subtexts crop up time and again. The one that I feel is the most constant, that seems to almost define the genre as a whole, is the concept of change. It literally pervades the genre: changes to the landscape, control of the country, the law, social organization, transport, the notion of freedom and opportunity, and so on. Of course some of these aspects either increased or decreased in popularity in relation to the time at which they were produced. So it’s no accident that the 50s, with that decade’s frequent meditations on the idea of personal redemption, should see a tendency to focus on changes in the hearts of men. Bend of the River (1952) concerns itself with atonement for the sins of the past and the desire to change the course of one’s life, along with the associated obstacles and prejudices that need to be overcome.

The Civil War has ended and the westward push is on, the drive to roll back the frontier and build something new and fresh. Over the opening credits a wagon train makes its way through the unspoiled beauty of Oregon. The settlers, headed up by Jeremy Baile (Jay C Flippen), are full of hope and a determined pioneering spirit. There’s a kind of wholesome enthusiasm that radiates from these people, and it’s reflected too in the man who’s guiding them, Glyn McLyntock (James Stewart). When he rides ahead to scout the trail we get the first indication that McLyntock isn’t the unsullied character his traveling companions believe. Topping a rise, he stumbles upon a nasty little scene in the clearing below. There’s a lynching in progress for a horse thief. Seeing as a man’s horse was often his most valuable possession and could mean the difference between survival and death in a hostile environment, frontier justice dictated that the rope was all one could expect for such a heinous crime. Still and all, lynching is a dirty little business, and it’s no surprise that McLyntock intervenes and saves the life of the condemned man. No, that in itself is entirely understandable – what is telling though is the reaction of McLyntock just before he draws his gun. His features register violent revulsion but there’s something of the hunted man that flashes briefly from his eyes. It transpires that the man at the end of the rope is Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy), a former border raider whose name is familiar to McLyntock. It’s soon revealed that Cole has also heard of McLyntock, both of them having been in the same line of business so to speak. While these two men with a dark past may have some things in common, there is one crucial difference. The devil-may-care Cole has no regrets about his actions whereas McLyntock is a deeply troubled figure, a man trying to bury his unsavory deeds and make a new beginning among people who trust him. When the wagon train rolls into Portland Cole and McLyntock bid each other farewell – Cole thinking only of how best to make his fortune while McLyntock is bound for the clean air and anonymity of the high country. However, these two are destined to cross paths again. The settlers need supplies shipped to them to see them through their first winter and have paid for delivery in advance. As is often the case though, circumstances change dramatically when greed rears its ugly head. A trip back to Portland sees McLyntock and Cole renewing their acquaintance. But theirs is an uneasy relationship, their friendship balanced rather precariously at all times. The shadows of the past are never far away, beckoning enticingly to Cole while pointing accusingly at McLyntock. On the run from new enemies in Portland, it remains to be seen how fast the friendship of these men will be, and whether McLyntock will be allowed to prove to his companions and himself that a man can truly change his ways.

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Bend of the River was Anthony Mann’s second western with James Stewart, continuing what was to become a highly influential cycle of movies and further developing the persona of the tortured lead. One of the key visual motifs in Mann’s work was the continual striving upwards of his characters, the drive to rise above base instincts and cares. Although this feature isn’t quite as pronounced in Bend of the River as it is in some of his other movies, it is still there. The wagon train, and most especially McLyntock, view the mountain country as a kind of promised land where social and spiritual rebirth are possible. Irving Glassberg photographed the stunning Oregon locations beautifully, and the contrast between the crisp freshness and purity of the mountains is contrasted strongly with the darker, more restrictive and corrupt feeling of the town gripped by gold fever. The central theme of a man desperate for change and redemption is well handled by Mann, working from a Borden Chase script. Additionally, there’s a fairly complex notion of duality at work too. In essence, Cole and McLyntock are mirror images. The inevitable confrontation represents McLyntock squaring off against his own darker nature as much as anything else.

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I think it’s impossible to overemphasize how instrumental Mann was in shaping James Stewart into one of the major post-war movie stars, although both Hitchcock and Capra had a hand in the process too. For much of the time Stewart is, superficially at least, in amiable mode, yet there’s always an unease there. This of course is entirely appropriate as his character is burdened by a tremendous sense of guilt and also a sort of slow burning dread that his past will be revealed and lead to his being rejected. As usual Mann managed to get Stewart to dig deep within himself and draw on his reserves. There are three notable occasions where Stewart’s consuming rage threatens to overcome him. The first is the momentary rush of emotion at the sight of the lynching. The next occurs when the rebellious laborers hired in Portland drop the full weight of a jacked up wagon on Baile – the startling intensity of Stewart’s fury rendering him speechless and inarticulate. However, it’s the final outpouring that carries the greatest impact. With the mutiny complete and Cole having shown his true colors, the emotionally distraught Stewart delivers those lines which I featured at the top of the article. Written down in black and white, they lack the power with which Stewart invests them in his cold, calculated and measured way. With his voice threatening to crack under the strain of maintaining self-control, no-one is left in any doubt that the gloves are off, the Rubicon has been crossed and there’s no going back.

Arthur Kennedy proved a splendid foil for Stewart; where Stewart was all inner conflict and suppressed emotion, Kennedy was a man very much at ease with his own villainy. However, that’s not to say his performance was one-note or lacking in nuance. He starts off as something of a rogue, but not an entirely unattractive one. It’s his innate greed and an inability to rise above his own self-interest that sees him develop into a fully fledged villain. As such, we don’t get the same shock as would be the case a few years later when Kennedy again teamed up with Stewart and Mann to make The Man from Laramie. Here, Kennedy’s character is clearly morally corrupted from the beginning and it’s only the extent that’s in question. The supporting cast in Bend of the River is a remarkably strong one starting with Julia Adams, Rock Hudson and the great Jay C Flippen. This was one of the star making roles for the rising Hudson, a vigorous, heroic part as the young gambler who signs on with the wagon train. Hudson’s good enough at what he’s asked to do, but really it’s not very demanding stuff and he makes only a limited impression. Julia Adams’ beautiful presence graced many a movie for Universal during the 50s and I always like to see her name in the credits. This film offered her a good part as the girl who initially falls for Kennedy’s charm before finally seeing him for what he is and switching her affections to Stewart. And there’s no shortage of familiar faces to add to the villainy ranged against Stewart – Howard Petrie, Royal Dano, Jack Lambert and Harry Morgan all put in good performances. And then there’s Stepin Fetchit, an actor whose characterizations remain controversial to this day. I think it’s worth noting that both Scott Nollen (whose latest book I reviewed last week) and Joseph McBride have interesting things to say about this performer, namely the way John Ford and he tried to actually subvert racial stereotypes in their work together.

I think Bend of the River is available on DVD pretty much everywhere these days – it’s certainly been out in both the UK and the US via Universal for many years now. The UK disc I have is a completely bare bones affair with nothing at all in the way of extra features. However, the transfer of the film is very good indeed, with excellent color and no print damage worth mentioning. In the past I’ve tried broadly rating or comparing the westerns that Mann and Stewart made together, but it’s essentially a pointless exercise. These are all strong and rewarding movies that can be watched repeatedly without losing any of their power or freshness. Let’s just say that this is one of the top-tier westerns from a great team and leave it at that.

I would just like to add a brief postscript here to let anyone who’s interested in such things know that this has been the 250th film which I’ve had the pleasure of writing about on this site.