The Violent Men

Quality is a hard thing to  define with any degree of precision. It’s something we all know when we see it but try putting it into words, creating a label for it which can be affixed to suitable candidates and you find yourself in trouble. If that’s a tough one, then differentiating or categorizing grades of quality is the kind of challenge one could base myths on. I, like probably most other people, will take some pride in my ability to recognize “a good movie”, even if that is merely my necessarily subjective view, and I might also try to impart to others exactly why I feel this is the case. But what separates a great movie from a simply good one? I genuinely don’t know, but again I can usually recognize it. All this abstraction leads me to The Violent Men (1955), a Rudolph Maté directed western with a superb cast and the kind of names on the other side of the camera which really ought to ensure its comfortable position among the acknowledged greats. Yet it doesn’t belong there, it’s not poor by any means but never rises above the level of quite good. And I can’t help but wonder why that’s so. Needless to say, any and all ideas on the subject are welcome and will be taken into consideration.

The framework within which the story plays out is a classic one for the genre, the range war. The motivation behind it all appears to be ambition and a twisted kind of love, twisted by a its traumatic birth in violent circumstances. I say appears here because it’s really greed, or perhaps covetousness might be more accurate, which propels everybody and everything towards another of those fiery yet cathartic conclusions. We follow it all from the perspective of John Parrish (Glenn Ford) a Civil War veteran who came west in the uncertain hope of recovering from his wounds. Well he did recover, and clearly made a success, albeit a slightly reluctant one, of his time as a small-scale rancher. However, in something of a subversion of the standard western trope the dearest wish of this young man is to go east. That’s what he claims anyway, or at least it’s what his betrothed, Caroline Vail (May Wynn), has encouraged him to believe. When we meet Parrish he’s poised to sell out and be on his way to a new life, but there are clearly nagging doubts stalking him. He’s ready to sign everything over to local big shot and bully Lew Wilkison (Edward G Robinson), a battle-scarred old tyrant who rules the range with an iron fist but who fails to see the treachery taking place under his own roof involving his restless wife Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) and his shiftless younger brother Cole (Brian Keith).

I spoke about the path that leads to a blazing climax earlier, but it’s a long and slow-burning fuse that leads us there. The first half of the movie builds everything up carefully and methodically, as Ford’s character gradually comes to terms with his own doubts, his sense of responsibility to a place and a people who arguably saved his life and offered him a new start. As he watches injustice pile on top of vindictiveness, till cold-blooded murder is done before his eyes, we see him wrestling with his own indecision. Ford was, in my opinion, a master at pushing against his own natural reticence, a characteristic which colored and strengthened his best performances. This quality gets a solid workout in The Violent Men, the pressure rising incrementally until a release must be  sought.

If drama needs conflict in order to have meaning, then that conflict should be founded on the existence of a strong villain to give it the necessary momentum. The Violent Men presents the nominal bad guy in the form of Edward G Robinson and he growls, blusters and threatens his way through the first half with aplomb. Still, I don’t think he can be classified the main villain; although there’s some effectively sullen slouching from Brian Keith, and even a bit of mean braggadocio from a young Richard Jaeckel, the honor surely belongs with Barbara Stanwyck. Mendacious and manipulative to the end, she pulls the strings and directs the mayhem, easily seeing off any competition from the other women in the cast – May Wynn, Diane Foster and Lita Milan. In support, Warner Anderson is enjoyable as Ford’s dependable foreman and there’s a typically unctuous turn from James Westerfield.

Rudolph Maté began as a cinematographer and carried his talents in that area into his subsequent work as a director, generally turning out visually attractive and striking movies. With a man like that directing and the actual photography duties shared between W Howard Greene and Burnett Guffey, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the film looks exceptionally fine, aided by shooting in the familiar Lone Pine locations. The story derives from a novel by Donald Hamilton, of the Matt Helm stories (much admired apparently by John Dickson Carr) and The Big Country. Personally, the only book by Hamilton I’ve read is Night Walker, which was reissued in paperback a few years ago, and I rather liked it so I’ve a mind to see if I can locate a copy of this. Anyway, plenty of talent on display here so far and that’s further enhanced by having the score penned by the great Max Steiner.

So, we wind up in a similar place to where we started, looking at a mightily impressive list of highly talented contributors in a well made western that flirts with themes that allude to classical tragedy. Make no mistake, this is a fine and entertaining piece of work yet it falls short of what I’d think of as greatness. Nevertheless, this isn’t a major criticism, more something that piques my curiosity. Just to round it all off, while The Violent Men has long been widely available on DVD, the image could use a bit of a brush up and there’s the potential for a very strong Blu-ray. As far as I’m aware, no-one has  released a Hi-Def version of the movie and I think this is a title deserving of that kind of treatment.

The Money Trap

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It isn’t the money, it never is. It’s people, the things they want…and the thing’s they’ll do to get it.

While the consensus is that film noir, weakened and wounded by a shifting media and social landscape, shuffled off into the shadows at the tail end of the 1950s, it occasionally lurched back out of the alley and onto the slick, neon-lit main streets. Wherever tough luck and the fickleness of fate hang out the dark cinema is never far off, and sightings were reported at various times throughout the 60s. The Money Trap (1965) is one of those later versions of the classic form and, to my mind, quite an effective one too.

It starts, as it ends, with the aftermath of a killing. The camera is high, observing with cool detachment, the familiar urban setting of streetlights reflecting off wet asphalt. A squad car pulls up to the curb and two detectives alight, crossing swiftly to the ramshackle tenement where the night’s latest offering awaits. Joe Baron (Glenn Ford) and Pete Delanos (Ricardo Montalban) are confronted with the dead body of a young Latino woman, lynched in a bordello by her enraged husband. Although this turns out to be no more than an incidental plot strand, it serves to introduce the seedy and morally skewed world – an “honor killing” such as this is spoken of as being at least partially understandable – where we’ll be spending the next hour and a half. We then move on to see how Baron is living an extremely luxurious existence, far beyond that which a cop’s salary could be expected to pay for. And of course it’s no such a surprise when we learn how the finances are actually down to a rich young wife, Lisa (Elke Sommer), but that supply of cash may not be unlimited. So the need for money is our hook, the line is provided by the main investigation – a burglar shot under slightly dubious circumstances by a well-off doctor (Joseph Cotten) – while the sinker will come in the form of a mini-heist that’s doomed from inception. As it all unfolds Baron, who has been treading a variety of fine lines, runs across Rosalie (Rita Hayworth), an old flame and a reminder of simpler times, and something begins to worry his conscience.

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The film has two big themes at work on two levels. In a narrower and more personal sense, there is a yearning for some kind of return to innocence, a desire on Baron’s part to regain some of the purity and promise he once possessed. This plays out in the way he’s drawn repeatedly to seek out Rosalie, yet she’s been bruised and broken by the years and we (and I think the same is true of Baron too) know that he’s really just chasing rainbows on that score. The wider picture is all about front and facade, the flash appearances that ensure nothing is quite as it seems and thus nothing can be depended on. Everybody in the movie is carrying secrets and consequently tell lies to conceal them – policemen are corrupt, wives are potentially faithless, friends may be enemies in waiting and the more respectable the surface, the rottener the core. There are angles everywhere and none of them clean. Should we read something into the fact the one man who speaks of integrity and honesty is a police captain (an uncredited Ted de Corsia) who is only seen  in the morgue?

Burt Kennedy’s great strength was as a writer, especially in those films where he worked with Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher – even if he had never done anything else outside of those films his cinematic legacy would have been considerable. Nevertheless, Kennedy also worked as a director, albeit with less satisfying results. In that capacity his work tended to be what we might term entertaining without being all that distinguished. A lot of his films have a certain flatness to the visuals, something of the made-for-TV look, although this doesn’t apply to all of them. The Money Trap does suffer from this a little but cameraman Paul Vogel had a sound enough pedigree in classic era noir (High Wall, Dial 1119, Black Hand, A Lady Without Passport, Lady in the Lake etc.) to ensure the right kind of mood was struck when required. Still, I feel there’s some indecisiveness in the overall style of the movie, it’s not a fatal flaw or anything but it is noticeable.

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Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth made five films together, with Gilda probably being the most famous of those. Naturally, both stars had aged in the two decades which had passed but Ford was in better shape, his features reflecting a man with a bit of living behind him and about the appropriate level of weariness for a man who sees the less savory side of life on a daily basis. Hayworth was playing a woman worn down by years of bad luck and booze, and she looked like she knew the feeling only too well. I understand she had something of a drink problem in reality and there’s a degree of authenticity in her performance.

Joseph Cotten could move easily between heroic and villainous parts; he always had a bit of stiffness about him, a distance or remoteness, which lent itself well to darker or more ambiguous roles as the years went by. As such, he was a fine fit for the doctor with connections and he looked like he was enjoying himself as his character slowly reveals himself. Ricardo Montalban had appeared in a couple of quality films noir before this – Border Incident and Mystery Street – and he brought abundant experience to the table as Ford’s partner on the lookout for any get-rich-quick opportunities. And rounding out the principal cast is  Elke Sommer, always easy on the eye and playing a role that has a touch more depth than initially looks like being the case. In fact, it’s Sommer who makes a major contribution to the resolution, which at least hints at something more positive than the build-up might suggest.

The Money Trap is available as a Warner Archive MOD disc, and there are also copies on sale in other territories. The image is generally quite pleasing, black and white CinemaScope usually is and particularly when the print used has no glaring faults. Anyway, I found this an enjoyable piece of post-noir cinema, well acted and, for the most part, nicely shot.

 

 

The Big Heat

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Over the years I’ve spent a fair bit of time talking about film noir, musing over what it is or isn’t and, perhaps inevitably, looking at quite a few borderline cases. I’m still not sure I could articulate exactly what constitutes film noir – although not being able to do so is hardly a big deal – but I do recognize a clear-cut example when I see it. Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) comfortably fits the bill with its harsh portrayal of a cruel and corrupt world and the merciless way it treats those who would resist it.

The first thing we see is a man reaching for a revolver and then calmly blowing his brains out as he sits at the desk in his front room. His wife (Jeanette Nolan) is alerted by the gunshot and appears shocked, but not too much and certainly not overcome by grief. If anything, she’s drawn more to the document her late husband left behind. The recently deceased was a cop, a dirty one who had been bought and paid for by the mob, and also smart enough to have retained some insurance. As the investigating officer, Bannion (Glenn Ford), remarks, when a cop takes his own life the department is always interested to find out the reason. Initially, there’s no reason to doubt the widow’s claims that her husband was suffering from ill-health and the case looks to be an open and shut one. Even when a girl in a clip joint makes allegations about a less than satisfactory private life, there’s nothing to prove it’s anything other than talk. It’s only after Bannion starts to get gently warned off that he grows more suspicious. As the underworld flexes its muscles and reveals the violence that has been lurking behind the thinnest of veils the full extent of official corruption becomes apparent. Had Bannion been prepared to play the game, matters would have ended there. However, his persistence, and perhaps recklessness or naivety, brings tragedy right into his own parlor. With the whole fabric of his being torn down around him, Bannion moves himself out to the fringes of society where he allows himself to become consumed with hatred, frustration and an unquenchable desire for vengeance.

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I’ve never made any secret of the fact I’m a big fan of Fritz Lang, and I’m especially fond of his Hollywood movies. Towards the end of his time in the US the budgets he operated under seemed to shrink but he always had a talent for economy in his storytelling anyway. The Big Heat exemplifies this neatly in the no-nonsense way it plunges headlong into the tale from the very first shot. The whole movie is a lean affair, pared down to its essentials visually, thematically and in terms of dialogue too. There’s no waste – not a word nor a gesture appears which doesn’t serve to drive the narrative on. Even the central idea (that of institutional corruption, an increasing staple of 50s film noir) is addressed in direct, matter-of-fact terms.

One of the most interesting aspects, for me at least, was the contrasting portrayal of family life on view. We’re introduced to Bannion’s domestic setup early on and it’s an attractive one, defined by the affection and banter between the detective and his wife (Jocelyn Brando) and the simple yet wholesome way they’re living. Later, when we’re introduced to the chief mobster, Lagana (Alexander Scourby), it’s a very different world which is presented. Where Bannion’s home is a relaxed place filled with informal conversation, Lagana’s mansion feels like a mausoleum of respectability, a soulless place where no hint of “dirty” talk is tolerated.

The other notable point to be made about The Big Heat is the frank way that violence is depicted. There’s real brutality in the actions of the mob and its principal enforcer (Lee Marvin), a sadistic pleasure derived from the infliction of pain and suffering. The film came along quite early in Marvin’s career and gave him the kind of role that was something of a gift for a young actor. In another of those instances of mirroring Ford’s honest cop is driven right to the brink of sanity and morality – he comes to embrace violence with almost the same gusto as Marvin’s sociopath. The crucial difference here though is that Ford draws himself back before he fully succumbs to his basest instincts. Actually, it’s a very solid part for him, requiring him to exercise a fair bit of range as his character travels along the painful arc from contented family man, through heartbreak and loss, to cold avenger. He’s partially saved or redeemed by his own innate decency, but an even more significant influence is provided by Gloria Grahame’s unfortunate moll. It’s her actions and what happens to her that breaks everything wide open, giving Ford his first real leads and also reawakening his ability to identify and empathize with people again. Ultimately, while The Big Heat is a film which sees very bad things happen to people, its message is a positive one about human nature. Sure society has its share of rottenness and violence may be lurking just round the corner, but decent people remain so at heart and there are always those willing to lay it on the line to help others.

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There was a time when it was difficult to see all of Fritz Lang’s films, although that’s no longer the case. Even back in the days when one had to search around for his stuff The Big Heat was one of the more accessible titles – I think it may actually have been one of the first films by the director I ever saw, at a time when his name wouldn’t have registered with me. Now there are a variety of DVDs and Blu-rays available from different territories so there should be no problem finding a suitable copy of the movie to view. I would imagine that most people with even a passing acquaintance with Lang will be aware of this film – it’s generally well regarded and the casting probably helps. Needless to say, it’s highly recommended for anyone who has yet to view it.

 

 

The Man from Colorado

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The years following WWII saw a number of movies looking at the problems encountered by veterans returning home and the difficulties they faced in trying to assimilate themselves once again into society in peace time. This was a common enough theme in film noir, where the shadowy, paranoid and dangerous world of the dark cinema seemed ideally suited to such tales of detachment and disillusionment. Westerns, on the other hand, would appear an odd choice for exploring these particular issues. However, as I’ve tried to point out in the past, the western was a versatile and malleable genre capable of embracing just about any type of story. The Man from Colorado (1948) deals with a man coming home after experiencing the horrors of a different and more distant war – the Civil War – but the associated problems, especially the psychological ones, are sure to have struck a chord with contemporary audiences. Perhaps more importantly, the film remains relevant for modern audiences as, sadly, new conflicts have a nasty habit of rearing up to rob a little of the soul of almost every generation.

It all starts with a massacre. On the last day of the Civil War a small band of Confederate soldiers are holed up in a box canyon. Faced by a well equipped Union force, these demoralized troops have the choice of making a fight of it or surrendering. Their officer orders a white flag run up, and then watches in disbelief as the Union commander gives the word for his artillery to open up. Owen Devereaux (Glenn Ford) is the colonel who knowingly seals the fate of this group of doomed men. Devereaux is a man not only hardened by battle but psychologically damaged to the extent that his humanity has been all but stripped away. This calculated atrocity is witnessed by his friend and subordinate Captain Del Stewart (William Holden), but his sense of loyalty to his commander, and perhaps his charity to a man he feels has been scarred enough by conflict, leads to his surreptitiously burying the evidence. Devereaux himself recognizes the mental strain he’s suffering from but hopes that civilian life and freedom from official duties will offer him respite. However, that’s not to be; a man with his war record is attractive to those with a political agenda to push, and the local businessmen in his hometown convince Devereaux to take on the role of federal judge. Reluctantly, Stewart agrees to serve as federal marshal under Devereaux, partly because it affords him the opportunity to keep an eye on his disturbed friend. Nowadays, the condition affecting Devereaux would likely be referred to as post traumatic stress disorder and various treatments would be prescribed. However, we’re talking about 1865 and men had to simply soldier on, so to speak. The power and responsibility that Devereaux now holds seem only to exacerbate the problem, and the fact that Stewart is not only his deputy but a rival in love too doesn’t help matters any. As Devereaux, backed by grasping mining interests, develops a kind of callous megalomania that threatens to undermine all respect for the law among the locals, Stewart increasingly realizes that his friend has gone beyond the pale and it’s his duty to take a stand.

Borden Chase wrote the story that The Man from Colorado was based on, although I don’t know how much of that was altered in the finished screenplay. The dark characterizations certainly all bear Chase’s stamp, but the script shows the mine owners and authority figures in a pretty negative light, something that would appear to be at odds with his conservatism. The depiction of a man driven insane by the horrors of warfare and his inability to come to terms with a post-war life is the main theme of the movie, and it’s obviously the most interesting feature. However, the critique of a society shaped and driven by financial interests is never far from the surface either. Taken together, these two aspects are held up to the light in what is essentially an examination of how society treats those it relied on to defend its safety when the hostilities have come to an end. The inference is that, at the time anyway, a man had to deal with these matters himself, or with the help of a handful of close friends at best. Director Henry Levin is one of those figures who worked away within the studio system, making movies in all kinds of genres, without too much fuss or acclaim. His handling of the material in The Man from Colorado shows he was more than capable of telling an interesting story and keeping the pace tight. The film is a mix of interior and location work, with the former dominating for long stretches. For the most part, the action set pieces take place outdoors – particularly the opening and the fiery climax – while the sound stage interiors are used for the more psychologically complex character scenes. At times here, the lighting, composition and musical cues suggest the feel of a film noir, in spite of the sumptuous Technicolor used in the movie.

As far as the performances are concerned, the lion’s share of the work is carried out by Ford and Holden, with the former being the center of attention. The part of Owen Devereaux is arguably the least sympathetic of Glenn Ford’s many roles. He managed to get right into the dark heart of his character, but in doing so missed out on giving him too much dimension. That may be down to the writing as much as anything, but it still means that the central role is robbed of some much needed complexity. Basically, Ford becomes a villainous black hat for the audience to hiss at, and not a lot more. What this means is that Holden’s part is given added interest. A lawman who turns in his badge and joins a gang of outlaws isn’t usually seen as a hero in westerns of the period, but that’s precisely what Holden’s Del Stewart does. There’s considerably more conflict in this character – loyalty, love and social responsibility are all motivational factors for him – and Holden gets to explore his range a good deal more than Ford. Among the supporting cast James Millican has the plum role as the former soldier who insubordination sees him run foul of Ford’s Devereaux. Millican gets to play a great anti-heroic figure and eventually bows out in fine fashion – a terrific actor. Ellen Drew is the only woman in the movie, as the object of both Ford and Holden’s affections, and her role is a weak one; she’s not called on to do much more than look suitably distressed by Ford’s growing excesses. Other parts of note are filled by Edgar Buchanan as a sympathetic doctor and Ray Collins as the mercenary mine owner.

The Man from Colorado is a Columbia production so Sony are responsible for its release on home video. The UK DVD is a very basic disc, lacking a proper menu and boasting no extra features at all, apart from a plethora of language and subtitle options. That notwithstanding, the picture quality, which is ultimately the most important thing, is excellent. The print used for the transfer is in very good condition and displays no damage that I was aware of. The transfer is clean and sharp, and the Technicolor looks to be especially well reproduced – all in all, this is a handsome presentation. Westerns with a strong psychological storyline really came into their own in the 1950s but The Man from Colorado represents a fine late 40s example of this variant. While I think the film could have benefited from a more rounded portrayal of Ford’s character the roles played by Holden and Millican do compensate to some extent. In the final analysis, I consider this to be a solid, worthwhile western that I’d rate as above average.

 

 

The Man from the Alamo

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The worst that can happen to you is that somebody will say you died a hero. That man’s going to be called a coward the rest of his life.

That quote essentially sums up what The Man from the Alamo (1953) is all about – the way that courage can be misrepresented and misunderstood, how casual labeling can lead to blind, unjustified persecution. While this idea is central to the film, it’s mixed in with a standard revenge tale, and set against a backdrop of historically significant events. One could say there are the makings of an epic story here but, in the hands of Budd Boetticher, the end result is a short, tightly paced western that rarely pauses for breath and never outstays its welcome.

The opening section plunges the audience straight into the latter stages of the siege of the Alamo, with Travis’ volunteers holed up in the old adobe mission and Santa Anna’s forces massing for the final assault outside. These events have become part of American lore, and far beyond the borders of the US too if the truth be told, coming to represent grit, determination and heroic self-sacrifice. Occasions such as this have the potential to make legends of all involved, to see names honored for generations to come. However, as always, there’s a flip side to the coin. Where circumstances can see one man’s reputation soar, they can equally see that of another cast into the mud. Which brings us to John Stroud (Glenn Ford), one of the defenders of the Alamo and a man who has already proved his mettle in the heat of battle. It’s bad enough when news arrives that no relief will be forthcoming, but the situation is exacerbated for some by reports that enemy sympathizers are raiding the unprotected homesteads to the north. As a result, a handful of defenders draw lots to see who will undertake the thankless task of leaving the mission and heading off to take care of the vulnerable families. The dubious honor falls to Stroud, who accepts his fate and rides off into potential ignominy. The crucial point here is that the viewer knows that Stroud had no other choice, that he was simply dealt a lousy hand and could do nothing but play it. As it turns out, his gesture proves futile – the guerrillas have been and gone, leaving nothing in their wake but charred homes and shallow graves. Stroud is now a man bereft: his home and family are gone, and his name has become a byword for cowardice and dishonor among those not privy to all the details. All that is left is a thirst for revenge, a desire to track down and punish the renegades who have taken all he held dear. At best Stroud finds himself shunned by a contemptuous town, and at worst he risks a lynching by the more hot-headed elements. Yet, despite the threats and insults, he is committed to tracking down the real villains and, in so doing, redeeming himself in the eyes of his suspicious traveling companions while also coming to terms with his own feelings of guilt and shame.

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A brief glance at the credits for The Man from the Alamo provides ample proof of its pedigree: Niven Busch and Steve Fisher feature among the writers, Russell Metty handled the photography, and Budd Boetticher occupied the director’s chair. Boetticher’s status rests mainly on the Ranown films, those pared down masterpieces with Randolph Scott. However, directors, like actors, don’t just arrive fully formed. When you come to examine almost any artist’s finest work, there’s generally a progression that can be traced leading up to that point. And so it was with Boetticher; the Ranown westerns may represent the peak of his achievements, but his earlier pictures were pointing in that direction. As I mentioned at the beginning, the ingredients were in place for a “big” movie. However, Boetticher, and the writers, trim away all the unnecessary flab to leave us with a lean piece that focuses on a driven character, an emotionally damaged outsider who measures words and actions carefully. That inner torment that Scott would so successfully portray a few years down the line isn’t quite so fully developed in The Man from the Alamo, but it’s there in embryonic form at least. I think it’s fair to say that Boetticher did his best work when he was out shooting on location. This film doesn’t have the benefit of the iconic Lone Pine locations yet the exteriors all look suitably handsome. Actually, a fair bit of the filming took place on the Universal backlot, and still looks attractive. The opening in the Alamo is extremely atmospheric, with the guttering candlelight creating a kind of grim claustrophobia, punctuated occasionally by the harsh flashes of the artillery. Generally, all of the action, and there’s no shortage of it, is well handled – the scene with the wagon train in full flight near the end is a good example of the director’s talent for exciting outdoor sequences.

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Glenn Ford started his post-war career strongly with Gilda and built on it very successfully in the years that followed. By the 1950s he was getting better and better, and The Man from the Alamo was made at a time when he was approaching his peak. While there are plenty of good actors around him in this movie, a lot rests on his central performance. Ford’s experience working in film noir stands to him here as there’s more than a touch of bad luck and the cruelty of fate surrounding his character. He was always good in these kinds of roles – the outsider who’s vaguely uncomfortable with himself – and uses that ability to get properly into the character of Stroud. He could also, when he wanted, project a type of self-effacing affability and that helps draw the sympathy of the audience. If you’re going to tell a story like this – about a wronged man whose sense of personal and public honor is questioned – then it’s vital to have an everyman type like Ford whose real qualities are apparent to the viewer. Julia Adams was handed a strong role too as the woman who overcomes her initial skepticism to become Stroud’s main ally. Not only does she bring a lot of dignity to her part, but she handles the physical demands very well too. Every western needs a suitable villain and Victor Jory was an expert at playing cunning and ruthless types. Besides looking shifty and slippery, Jory had a voice that just oozed malevolence. Neville Brand was another of those perennial bad guys and is impressive in a small but memorable role. In support there are worthwhile turns from Hugh O’Brian as a priggish Texan officer who gets to eat some humble pie, and Chill Wills as the one-armed newspaperman forced to put his blustering prejudice aside.

I actually have two copies of The Man from the Alamo on DVD: the UK edition that came out first and the US release that came as part of a four movie set a few years later. Both are Universal releases, and there’s not a lot to choose between them regarding the transfer. Both are in reasonable condition with no major print damage evident, although the colors look a little muted here and there. The UK disc has a variety of language dubs and subtitles available, but the US version represents better value since three other films come with it. Certain names bring raised expectations with them, and Budd Boetticher is one of those. It would be unwise to approach The Man from the Alamo in the hope of seeing a movie of the quality of any of the Ranown pictures, but that doesn’t mean it’s an inferior movie. Frankly, it’s a good little western on its own terms, but it’s also interesting as an indication of the direction in which Boetticher was unmistakably moving at this stage in his career.

Gilda

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Hate can be a very exciting emotion. Very exciting. Haven’t you noticed that?

I guess one of the defining characteristics of film noir is its subversive nature. It tends to take traditional scenarios and situations and casts its dark and cynical shadows over them, carrying the audience along on a journey into a murky and unfamiliar world. This subversion can apply to the legal system, social matters, or affairs of the heart. Gilda (1946) concentrates on the latter category, spinning its tale of three people locked into a romantic triangle, unable to decide if they love or hate each other and apparently unaware of the distinction between these powerful and conflicting emotions.

The story begins in Argentina at some unspecified point towards the end of WWII. But there’s a timeless, otherworldly quality to it all – the end of the war and the ensuing celebrations are mentioned in a throwaway fashion that’s surely meant to emphasize the detachment of the lead characters from the real world and the more mundane concerns of most people. These people seem to exist and operate within their own self-contained universe, a glamorous yet nightmarish demi-monde, where the bigger picture of world-changing events are relevant only as a kind of Hitchcockian MacGuffin. The opening shot of the movie introduces Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), a down on his luck grifter rolling dice on the waterfront and looking for easy marks. His strategy is a high risk one, not just because he’s a gambler but because his loaded dice are sure to attract the attention of disgruntled suckers sooner or later. When the inevitable happens, and Johnny finds himself the victim of a shakedown on a dark and forbidding wharf, his hide is saved by the intervention of a suave gentleman with a handy sword stick. This is Ballin Mundson (George Macready), a casino owner with an interest in shadier and even more profitable ventures. Johnny is nothing if not an opportunist and soon talks himself into employment, and a position of trust, with Ballin. For a time this mutually beneficial arrangement works and everything is sailing along smoothly on calm waters, until a woman appears and brews up a storm. Gilda (Rita Hayworth) is a sexual powerhouse, a woman whose passionate nature and provocative insolence seems to radiate from within. Her sudden and dramatic appearance as Ballin’s wife, after a whirlwind courtship, throws Johnny for a loop and irreversibly alters the dynamic of the relationship between the two men. Gilda’s arrival on the scene has an immediate and profound effect on Johnny – their introduction is a charged affair, and the confusion that Johnny’s barely able to disguise is shared by the audience. The rippling undercurrent of hostility gives rise to all sorts of questions about these people. I’m not giving away much here when I point out that it’s soon revealed that Gilda and Johnny were once lovers, before he walked out on her. And there we have our triangle: a cagey, duplicitous affair where the three protagonists circle each other warily and seem bent on mutual destruction. While it all develops nicely, I’ve always thought that the ending is weak – a little too abrupt and not all that convincing.

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In my opinion, the reason Gilda is classified as a film noir is down to the theme more than the look. Cameraman Rudolph Maté does create some characteristically noir images – the waterfront opening, some of the nighttime casino scenes, and the way Ballin seems to blend and merge with the shadows – but much of the movie features bright, flat lighting. The edgy, darker tone stems largely from the setting and plot twists. A casino has a built-in sense of fatalism to it anyway, a place where fortune quite literally depends on the turn of a card or a throw of the dice. When this is combined with the South American setting, and the allusions to ex-Nazis involved in political and economic intrigue, it conjures up that sense of exotic danger that was very much in fashion in the mid to late 40s. Of course all this really only amounts to Casablanca style escapism; the key element that tips it over into the world of noir is the sadomasochistic relationship at the centre of the tale. The film is essentially a love story, but there’s a vicious, unpleasant side to the romance. Everything revolves around the title character, as she punishes both Johnny and Ballin, but in so doing she incurs arguably greater punishment at their hands in return.

The unquestionable star of the show is Rita Hayworth, the role becoming the one with which she would remain most closely identified for the rest of her life. Hayworth herself acknowledged this and it seems she had mixed feelings about it – her frank admission that the men in her life went to bed with Gilda and woke up with her is very telling. Whatever the personal legacy may have been, Hayworth certainly breathed life into what, in other hands, could have been a cardboard cutout character. She was excellent at getting across the contrast between the vivacious bravado that characterized Gilda’s public facade and the uncertainty and self-loathing she felt in more private moments. Her big scene, the one that is endlessly referenced in books and retrospectives, where she tries to provoke a reaction from Johnny with a knowing parody of a public striptease is justly famous. However, it also tends to overshadow the good work she did all through the movie.

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While Rita Hayworth is the one most people will remember from the movie, Gilda worked wonders for the career of another of its stars. Glenn Ford, like a number of other actors, had seen service during the war, and Gilda was the film that gave him the boost he needed and raised his profile. Wartime experiences affected a lot of performers, it gave them a different air, a toughness and a touch of weariness too. Ford went on to work in some pretty good noir pictures, Lang’s The Big Heat being the best of them, and he did seem to belong in that world. As he did in his numerous western roles, Ford brought a kind of dissatisfaction with himself to his noir parts. Johnny Farrell has a veneer of cockiness and self-assurance to him, but Ford could always invest his characters with a nervy, slightly uncomfortable quality too. These may be little things yet they add up and make characters more believable and realistic. Although both Johnny and Gilda are flawed individuals, they’re not villainous. But a movie like this needs a bogeyman, and George Macready was a fine choice for the role of Ballin. Right from the beginning there’s a sinister air about him, and Macready’s innate charm and culture accentuates that. The repressed manner and wonderfully distinctive voice add to his calm menace – you honestly get the feeling that crossing this man would be an extremely foolish move. Of the supporting cast, I find Steven Geray the most memorable. This washroom attendant whose contempt for just about everyone, apart from Gilda, sees him making one flip comment after another seems to be given a lot of slack. I especially like the way we never find out exactly what leverage he has – the one time he’s about to reveal it he’s interrupted, and we’re left wondering.

I actually drafted this piece back in July, after I’d seen it one balmy Saturday night in an outdoor cinema in Athens – always a great way to enjoy a classic movie. However, I realized my holidays were fast approaching and so I decided to hold off publishing it. I though I might want to go back and tweak it some, but I’ve decided to leave it just as I’d written it a few days after watching the film. I’ve seen Gilda many times over the years and always enjoyed its dark romance. I wouldn’t say it’s one of those movies that reveals too many new things on repeated viewings yet it’s not the kind that grows stale either. It’s earned its classic status, and it’s well worth visiting or revisiting.