The Square Jungle

Hollywood in the 1950s seemed to fall in love with the idea of jungles, metaphorical ones at any rate. They ranged from the Asphalt to the Human, from the Blackboard to the Female, and those titles always carried at least a hint of film noir about them. The Square Jungle (1955) has been marketed as noir, but I don’t believe it fits in that category. Sure the trajectory followed by the protagonist takes a detour into the darker corners of despair and disgust, but it is ultimately headed in a different direction and is arguably best approached as a sporting melodrama that charts the sometimes painful journey from hubris to humility.

Eddie Quaid (Tony Curtis) is a man with ambitions, albeit modest ones at first. He’s working as a grocery store clerk and doing his best to offer moral support to his father, Pat (Jim Backus), who is weighed down by an unholy trinity of widowhood, unemployment and alcohol dependence. Desperate to haul his old man back from the brink after he’s been arrested for a drunken assault, and smarting from the consequent break-up of his relationship with Julie Walsh (Pat Crowley), he stumbles into the world of prizefighting. Since Eddie is clearly showing aptitude for the fight game, his father along with a sympathetic cop, McBride (Paul Kelly), persuade him to give it a go as a professional boxer. Under the watchful tutelage of Bernie Browne (Ernest Borgnine), an atypically learned and thoughtful man who is almost Socratic in his approach to training, Eddie (or Packy Glennon as he is known in the ring) rises fast through the ranks to earn a shot at the world title. This all occurs in the first twenty minutes or so of the movie, cutting through a lot of potentially tedious build-up and allowing the focus to rest firmly on Eddie’s period at the top, the three fights and their consequences that define him as a champion and, more importantly, as a man.

Many a boxing drama has focused on the corruption and underhanded shenanigans taking place in that shadowy world beyond the stark and floodlit square where the modern gladiators jog out to do battle with the promise of riches, glamor and celebrity always just one punch away. Yet there is little if any of that on display in The Square Jungle. Instead, it is replaced by a kind of ragamuffin romanticism, where pride, honor and self-respect are put to the test and are seen to win the day as opposed to the self-regarding venality that one normally associates with the fights.

I guess director Jerry Hopper would be classified as a journeyman, although that is not a term I am especially fond of due to that air of drabness it carries with it. He is never going to be regarded as a great and there isn’t any one film he made that commands our attention. Then of course there is also the fact that he worked so extensively in television, with many more credits in that medium than in the cinema, and that was rarely a career route that brought critical praise, or which permitted the creative breathing space essential to it for that matter. For all that though, I don’t think I have watched anything Hopper made which I didn’t enjoy on some level and those often undervalued television credits include some exceptionally fine work. One welcome feature of The Square Jungle is the pacing, the story maintains a strong sense of forward momentum all the way through, and I’ve already mentioned the brisk and efficient way the early part of the story is handled. Naturally, a boxing film needs to have well staged fight scenes and I think that is the case here, with the three major bouts being shot and edited in such a way as to impart a kind of brutal intimacy. The aftermath of each successive fight is vital to our understanding of the emotional, and indeed the spiritual, development of Eddie in particular. It’s quite subtly achieved given the nature of the subject matter and the brash milieu of fighters, trainers, promoters and sundry hangers-on. Personally, I was taken by the marvelous stillness that Hopper brought to the end of the fateful third fight, an all-encompassing silence that descends abruptly, the gravity of it all perfectly captured in the terseness of the referee and the wordless, tear-stained anguish of one woman’s face.

Eddie Quaid/Packy Glennon was the second time Tony Curtis would play a fighter, having already done so a few years earlier in Joseph Pevney’s Flesh and Fury. It is a good performance, charming throughout and moving smoothly from the open, selfless young man of the early scenes to the conceited and vaguely boorish champion he becomes before finally attaining wisdom and warmth, and winning a far more valuable prize in the process. Pat Crowley is quietly supportive as the girl he loves and who helps anchor him.

However, this is not a love story, but rather a look at how men can reach an accommodation with themselves, with their own masculinity in all its forms. As such, the relationship Eddie has with his father is a key one, the older man – who has tasted failure many times – living vicariously through his son’s success and the way that impacts on the younger man. Jim Backus was good in that kind of role. I find I tend to hold onto my first conscious impressions of actors and in the case of Backus that would have been his part as James Dean’s father in Rebel Without a Cause, so he is someone I automatically associate with weak but well-meaning figures. Then there is Ernest Borgnine, who could do no wrong around this time, as the saturnine philosopher carrying his own private guilt. In smaller roles, Paul Kelly, David Janssen, John Day, John Marley (long before he would wake up next to a horse’s head in The Godfather) and Leigh Snowden all make telling contributions. There is also a very brief cameo from former heavyweight champion Joe Louis.

Gradually, it is becoming easier to catch up with Universal-International titles that had long been hard to see. The Square Jungle has been released on Blu-ray in the US by Kino in one of their film noir collections and I’d like to think it might turn up in Europe or the UK at some point.It is a solid boxing drama with an attractive cast and a reliable director, and it’s well worth watching.

Secret of the Incas

Certain movies just seem to stick in the mind for one reason or another, sometimes not the whole film but a scene or two or maybe even only part of a scene. That was the case with Secret of the Incas (1954), which I recall seeing on television as a kid. It was the climax, or parts of it anyway, that remained with me and I hoped for a long time to get the chance to catch it again. Over time I’d heard it said that the film had a big influence on the development of the Indiana Jones character, and it’s easy enough to see where that idea comes from, but that didn’t interest me so much – my early viewing had preceded Raiders of the Lost Ark by a few years. Returning to half-remembered movies can, of course, prove to be enormously disappointing – all the elements which appeared thrilling and memorable to a youngster can fall completely flat when viewed through adult eyes – but not always. I’ve been able to see Secret of the Incas a few times now and I think it still holds up as an entertaining adventure yarn.

Harry Steele (Charlton Heston) is a classic pulp creation, scratching out a living in and around the Peruvian city of Cuzco. Trading on his looks and rugged demeanor, he latches onto newly arrived American tourists and offers his services as guide and, it’s strongly hinted, as a source of entertainment for the bored wives of the tired middle-aged businessmen who retain his services. Essentially, he’s a disreputable character, willing to do most anything to turn a buck and ever on the lookout for an opportunity to hit it big. In this case hitting it big would be the recovery of a fabled Inca artifact, a fabulous jewel-encrusted sunburst which has been lost for centuries and is of huge spiritual value to the indigenous people. While Steele runs his own schemes and scams he also makes use of, and is used in turn, by a fellow expatriate scoundrel, Ed Morgan (Thomas Mitchell). Both men long to get their hands on the Inca treasure, Steele actually having come into possession of a vital clue to its whereabouts, and the chance to do so presents itself in a somewhat roundabout fashion. The arrival in Cuzco of a Romanian defector, Elena Antonescu (Nicole Maurey), desperate to reach the US by any means looks at first to be an unwelcome distraction. However, the fact that the lady in question is being pursued by an official who just happens to have his own light airplane rouses Steele’s interest. He now has a way to get in and out of the lost city of Machu Picchu, where he believes the sunburst is hidden. Still, with Morgan on his trail, a team of archeologists excavating the site, and an ever-increasing stream of native pilgrims arriving daily, things may not be quite so simple.

Director Jerry Hopper had a pretty solid run of pictures in the early and mid-50s, he’d already worked with Heston on Pony Express and went on make the entertaining Smoke Signal with Dana Andrews afterwards. One of the most attractive aspects of the film is the beautiful location work in Peru, with Lionel Lindon’s camera lapping up the local color and spectacle. Hopper keeps things moving along nicely, blending footage of Peruvian customs to add a sheen of authenticity without allowing the narrative to flag. The script comes courtesy of Sydney Boehm and Ranald MacDougall, the former having written some fine films noir and there’s a brusque, hard-boiled quality to much of the dialogue that wouldn’t sound out of place in a crime film. Although this is a fairly unpretentious adventure, there’s also enough character development to ensure it doesn’t become overly formulaic. Steele grows and changes as events proceed and he undergoes the kind of redemptive arc I always appreciate seeing.

Charlton Heston almost inevitably ended up dominating any movie he appeared in, the sheer physical presence of the man demanding your attention. That trademark swagger is on display of course, but he has plenty of opportunities to show off his acting chops too. The early scenes highlight his complacent amorality, cuckolding clients to their faces and pocketing the money women give him with relish. If that were all it consisted of, it would be a one-dimensional performance though. What adds interest is the gradual awakening of some ethical sense, the realization that his current path will surely lead to his transformation into all he holds in contempt. Perhaps it’s the stinging rebuke of a woman or maybe the contact with those whose spirituality overrides base greed that pricks at his conscience; whatever the trigger actually is, the character of Steele comes to see himself as he really is, and what he may become.

Heston carries that off well, but the presence of Thomas Mitchell is vital in making it work. Mitchell always gave great value as far as I’m concerned, conveying a feeling of pathos better than any character actor I’ve seen. His playing of Ed Morgan is a spot on portrayal of a man gone to seed physically and emotionally. The stubbly face, the stained sweater, the fevered and darting eyes all point to decay and decline, and it’s all perfectly believable. Nicole Maurey is fine too as the political fugitive, a woman whose shady past is alluded to but never wholly explained. This leaves her with an air of mystery and we don’t really need to know what led her to flee to South America anyway. Less satisfactory is Robert Young’s staid archeologist – his performance isn’t a bad one yet the writing leaves his character’s storyline hanging and unresolved at the end. There are supporting roles for Peruvian singer Yma Sumac (her extraordinary and haunting vocal talents provide the basis for much of the soundtrack), Michael Pate, and a knowingly humorous Glenda Farrell.

Secret of the Incas appeared to be out of circulation for a long time but there are DVDs available in both Spain and Italy now. Olive Films had announced their intention to release the movie in the US at one point and then backed out of it citing the poor condition of the available elements. I have the Spanish DVD and it’s easy to see what probably discouraged the US company. The print has the kind of overall softness and instances of damage which mean it’s crying out for restoration. Having said that, the colors are quite strong and it’s by no means a struggle to watch. While I certainly found myself thinking about how much better the film could look I can’t honestly say the presentation reduced my enjoyment to any significant degree. If hunting for lost treasure, remote and exotic locations, and old-fashioned adventure are your thing, then Secret of the Incas should satisfy.

Smoke Signal


Films that adopted a pro-Indian stance can be found throughout the 50s, some more explicit in their sympathies than others. Smoke Signal (1955) offers an interesting variation on this trend; it would be inaccurate to refer to it as directly pro-Indian, rather it provides a critique of anti-Indian thinking. By casting a traditionally heroic actor in the central role and keeping his motivation slightly ambiguous for much of the running time – personally, I feel that greater ambiguity would have made the tale even more fascinating, but more on that later – it challenges our conventional genre perceptions. Add in an unusual setting, with the characters running the rapids of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and the ingredients are in place for a compelling western.

The story is built around Brett Halliday (Dana Andrews), a former captain in the US Cavalry who deserted, joined the Utes and turned renegade. However, Halliday has been captured by the army and is being held prisoner at a remote fort until he can be transported for court-martial. The opening sees Captain Harper (William Talman) and his patrol coming upon the fort that’s currently under siege. Harper’s arrival puts him in command of the tiny garrison which has been whittled down by relentless attacks. He has a special interest in seeing the captive called to account since his brother was killed in a battle with a band of Utes led by Halliday. Apparently, these Utes have been massing and forming alliances with other tribes to stage a spectacular uprising. Harper is initially skeptical about this but when proof is provided it becomes evident that holding out in the fort is not going to be an option. Although reluctant to do so, he takes Halliday’s advice and decides to evacuate the fort, bringing some abandoned boats and making a break for it down the uncharted river. The majority of the running time is spent on this perilous journey, where the small band of survivors must fend off the harassing Utes and struggle to overcome the dangers posed by nature. While Halliday protests his innocence of the charges against him at the beginning, he avoids mention of this for most of the journey. Instead, we’re left to wonder and, like the desperate group around him, have our doubts raised only by his seemingly selfless actions and determination to see his captors to safety. Gradually, as Halliday’s knowledge of the Indians and their tactics proves more effective, he gains the trust of a few of his companions. His strongest allies are the late garrison commander’s daughter (Piper Laurie) and a grizzled old campaigner, Sergeant Miles (Milburn Stone), he once led. The turning point comes when the inflexible Harper, seemingly motivated by spite, orders Miles to undertake a suicidal mission. From here on, sympathy shifts to Halliday, the sole exception being the callous and brutal Lieutenant Ford (Rex Reason). The emphasis of the film is on the group dynamic as much as anything, and the shifting loyalties is an important part of what keeps the viewer’s interest alive. Who, if anyone, will make it to journey’s end is always uppermost in our thoughts and the battle for hearts and minds, ours as much as the characters on screen, ensure the tension is maintained right to the last scene.

Director Jerry Hopper made a series of good if fairly unremarkable movies in the 50s (Secret of the Incas perhaps being the most notable) before embarking on a long and successful career in a string of well-known TV shows. Hopper, and cameraman Clifford Stine, get good value from the Grand Canyon locations, the towering rock face being both visually impressive and also hammering home the bottled up, claustrophobic atmosphere. However, it has to be said that while the location work is extremely attractive, there’s far too much reliance on obvious and distracting back projection. Hopper’s handling of the action scenes is just fine, the sporadic battles and skirmishes blend well with the ever-present threat of the raging river and keep the story moving along. I think my biggest complaint relates to the script, and the ending in particular. For me, this was altogether too pat and slightly unsatisfactory – I feel that not only does Harper behave out of character but he gets off a bit lightly too.

Smoke Signal is really Dana Andrews’ picture all the way. Writing of this actor before, I commented on his tendency to internalize his feelings and play things down. That understated quality is highly appropriate for the character of Brett Halliday, a man to whom being true to his own inner convictions has brought only the distrust and enmity of others. I think Andrews was capable of hiding things so well that it’s a pity the scrip didn’t capitalize on this talent and keep the viewers guessing a little longer about the true nature of his character – it would have added more depth and uncertainty. There’s an excellent example of Andrews’ carefully modulated playing in one of the early scenes, when Halliday and Harper first meet. Harper, full of scorn and bitterness, reaches out to snatch away the native amulet Halliday wears round his neck. The flash of anger and resentment that briefly flits across Andrews’ momentarily clouded features, not much more than a twitch of muscle and a hardness of eye, tells us that this charm is special to him and that Harper’s action has gravely insulted him. When it comes to screen acting it’s the little things, those fleeting gestures and tics, that often speak loudest. William Talman tended to get cast in villainous, or at least unsympathetic, parts. He’ll always be remembered as Hamilton Burger, Perry Mason’s eternal foe, but he was exceptional as the psychotic bad guy in Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker. In this film though he portrayed a man bound by his own rigid code, a by the book disciplinarian with a narrow and inflexible perspective. Talman’s performance, alongside Rex Reason’s thuggish characterization, is what lends Smoke Signal its pro-Indian status. As such, it earns its credentials almost by default; the film paints the Utes’ opponents as deeply prejudiced rather than showing the Indians themselves in an especially positive light. As the only woman in the movie Piper Laurie spends much of her time torn between Andrews and Reason, but does well providing a non-partisan viewpoint. In supporting roles, there’s strong work from Milburn Stone, Robert J Wilke and Douglas Spencer.

Pegasus in the UK licensed Smoke Signal from Universal for their DVD release. The disc presents the film in a nicely framed 2:1 anamorphic transfer. The image looks a little soft in some places but there’s no real damage on show and the colours are bright and strong. There are no extra features whatsoever offered, just the main menu and scene selection. Anyway, the Pegasus release is the only one, so far as I’m aware, that presents the movie in the correct aspect ratio and with anamorphic enhancement. Universal westerns from the 50s are always worth seeking out – they’re generally attractive to look at and often feature plots that throw out something a little different. Smoke Signal is a solid, medium grade western that works pretty well. Andrews is dependable and credible, Hopper’s professional direction keeps it all moving along ensuring the pace never flags, and the location work is very welcome. Generally, this is a tight and entertaining mid 50s western that I’m happy to have in my collection.~