The Long Night

Posted on January 28th, 2009 in 1940s, Film Noir, Anatole Litvak, Henry Fonda by Colin

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Hollywood has always been in love with the remake, not only of its own domestic product but those originating in other territories too. In the ’40s and ’50s a number of French movies were revisited, Lang’s Scarlet Street and Human Desire being prime examples, with a fair degree of success. Frequently these re-imaginings were (as in the previous examples) the work of directors and crews who had learned their craft in the French and other European cinema industries. Such was the case with The Long Night (1947); a remake of Le Jour Se Leve carried out by emigre director Anatole Litvak. Now I’ve never seen  the original, but a quick scan of the comments at the IMDb tell me that a number of people regard the Hollywood film as inferior. I’ve always been of the opinion that there are both good and bad remakes, and that there are those who display a knee-jerk reaction whenever the term is used. You pretty much have to judge any movie on its own merits and, as such, I think The Long Night stands up well enough.

It’s late in the day in a nameless town and a blind man taps his way up the stairs to his room in a boarding house. His ascent is interrupted as a shot rings out. On the top floor a door bursts open, and a mortally wounded man stumbles out before pitching headlong down the staircase. This was The Great Maximilian (Vincent Price), a second rate conjurer plying his trade in a succession of low rent night clubs across the country. Now he lies dead on a seedy landing in a tenement, gutshot by factory worker Joe Adams (Henry Fonda). That’s how The Long Night opens, and before the end we will learn just how these two men came to this point. For the most part the story is told in flashback from the point of view of Adams, although at one stage there is what you might call a double flashback. Sound confusing? Well, it’s not really, since the story recounted is a fairly simple one. Naturally, there’s a woman involved who acts as the catalyst. She is Jo Ann (Barbara Bel Geddes), a virginal young innocent for whom both Adams and Maximilian fall - figuratively and literally. With Maximilian persisting in his attempts to seduce the girl and Adams simmering resentment growing, events slowly build towards the only possible outcome. Along the way, other characters flit in and out of the story, most notably Maximilian’s former assistant and lover Charlene (Ann Dvorak). Her streetwise presence serves both to provide a contrast to the gullibility of Jo Ann and to highlight just what a piece of work Maximilian is. His deceitful pursuit of Adams’ girl is one thing, but it’s a rare kind of S.O.B. who shaves the paws of puppies and burns the skin red raw in order to train them to perform.

Broken glass and broken dreams - Henry Fonda

Made at a time when noir pictures were beginning to move towards a wider use of locations and a more documentary approach, The Long Night is something of a throwback. Shot entirely in the studio and making extensive use of miniatures and forced perspective, the film takes on a dreamlike, otherworldly quality. This works pretty well since Joe Adams spends the film holed up in a bullet-riddled room living within his own mind and memories. Fonda does well in a role that demanded he be breezy and cheerful in the flashbacks, all the while growing more uneasy until he finally starts to lose his grip on reality. He always excelled in his portrayals of average guys who are put upon, and he manages to work in some post-war angst which must have struck a chord with the recently returned WWII vets. In contrast, Vincent Price hams it up in a bombastic performance as the villain who is sly, snide and sneering while retaining a certain pathos. Barbara Bel Geddes, in her debut role, was well cast as the youthful Jo Ann. Superficially, she doesn’t seem to fit the stereotypical image of the femme fatale, but her character certainly has a fatal effect on the men in the picture. Ann Dvorak’s wisecracking dame who’s seen it all is is a joy to behold as she picks away at Maximilian’s carefully arranged image, and seems to be having a ball casually humiliating him whenever and wherever the opportunity arises.

The Long Night was an RKO picture but it has been released on R1 DVD by Kino. While the film clearly hasn’t had any significant clean-up done it remains in pretty good shape. There are a variety of damage marks present but, with a few exceptions, the print is clear and very watchable. As is often the case with films like this, the audio can be a bit inconsistent but I can’t see anyone forking out for a full blown restoration so this is probably as good as it’s going to look and sound. The disc does boast some nice extras in the form of a text based feature detailing the meticulous work that went into the production design which gives the film its unique atmosphere. Alongside that, there are  a  couple of clips which compare scenes in the movie with virtually identical ones in the French original. All told this is a fine movie that should please anyone with a taste for noir.

Five Graves to Cairo

Posted on January 22nd, 2009 in 1940s, War, Billy Wilder by Colin

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I suppose it goes without saying that war movies made while WWII was still in progress are inevitably going to be propaganda pieces. The more routine ones can lay the flag waving and speech making on so thick as to appear more than a little stodgy when viewed from a distance of over sixty years. The more memorable examples, at least from a present day perspective, are those that manage to tell a story that goes beyond merely depicting heroic resistance, a story that remains absorbing and exciting in its own right. Such is the case with Billy Wilder’s Five Graves to Cairo (1943). Naturally, the film was conceived and produced with the aim of assisting the war effort, but it avoids beating the viewer over the head with its message - at least until the final minutes. What we get instead is a tight, suspenseful yarn where the propaganda is served up sparingly and, for the most part, with subtlety.

Corporal Bramble (Franchot Tone), the sole survivor of a tank crew after the fall of Tobruk, stumbles out of the desert and into a battered, run down hotel. With the British in full retreat the only occupants are the owner (Akim Tamiroff) and a French maid by the name of Mouche (Anne Baxter). While the owner panics, Mouche is openly hostile to the new guest due to her bitterness over what she regards as Britain’s desertion of France at Dunkirk. However, the arrival of the Afrika Korps, and their illustrious chief Rommel (Erich von Stroheim), signals a softening of her attitude; not by much mind, but she can’t bring herself to betray Bramble. Therefore, Bramble assumes the identity of the recently deceased waiter Davos who, it turns out, was actually a Nazi agent sent on in advance. As such, Bramble finds himself in the dangerous yet privileged position of having Rommel’s confidence as the Field Marshal prepares for his assault on Cairo. That task would seem an impossible one given the demands made on his lines of supply. Yet Rommel’s ebullient self-assurance suggests he holds a trump card, which is hinted at via references to five graves and a mysterious professor. Bramble/Davos now faces the challenge of discovering the identity of the professor and the significance of the five graves before his cover is blown. None of this is made any easier by the continued ambivalence of Mouche, who is determined to “do business” with either Rommel or his aide (Peter van Eyck) in order to secure the release of her brother from a Nazi concentration camp.

Right under their noses - Erich von Stroheim & Franchot Tone

Directing only his second feature in Hollywood, Billy Wilder was already showing signs of his trademark style. Bleak is a word that has been used to characterize Wilder’s world view, and that’s certainly in evidence in the opening shots which show a tank trundling remorselessly across the vast desert, manned by its crew of dead men. There are lots of inventive little touches throughout the movie, such as the point of view shot seen through the intricate lattice work of the hotel desk, or the zoom cut to the transom as it snaps shut and knocks a concealed weapon into plain view. Alongside this is the sharp dialogue and strong characterization one typically associates with a Wilder picture. There’s a nice contrast of acting styles on show from both von Stroheim and Tone; von Stroheim is all swaggering Germanic confidence while Tone underplays his role as the ingratiating and obsequious waiter/spy. Anne Baxter does well enough as the conflicted maid, but it’s a tough slog with all the showmanship going on around her, not to mention the scene stealing comedic turn of Akim Tamiroff. The other supporting roles are well filled out by a young Peter van Eyck, Fortunio Bonanova, and Miles Mander’s British colonel, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Field Marshal Montgomery.

Five Graves to Cairo was a Paramount picture so the rights now reside with Universal who, in association with Madman, have released this on DVD in R4, at least both of their logos appear on the cover and on the disc itself. The transfer is a particularly fine one and is crisp and sharp throughout. There are some occasional damage marks but I can’t say I found them to be very distracting. The disc also has a 25 minute documentary on Anne Baxter, and there’s a nice 15 page booklet on the movie by Adrian Danks inside the case. This was one of the few Billy Wilder films I hadn’t seen before and I enjoyed it immensely. There’s so much going on that the 90 minutes seemed to fly by yet the pace never feels forced, save the ending which is a bit rushed. If you count yourself a fan of Wilder, or you just like war/spy movies, then Five Graves to Cairo is well worth seeking out. 

Rawhide

Posted on January 18th, 2009 in 1950s, Westerns, Henry Hathaway, Tyrone Power by Colin

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No, we’re not talking about the TV series featuring Clint Eastwood and Frankie Laine’s memorable theme song. This is Henry Hathaway’s claustrophobic western from 1951 with Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward. It’s one of those pictures that seems to have fallen through the cracks and is rarely talked about. I think the reason Rawhide doesn’t enjoy a better reputation can be traced to one essential weakness in the script, or more accurately the characterization, which I’ll look at later.

Tom Owens (Power) is a man with a lot to learn; he’s the son of the stagecoach owner and has been sent west to learn the business. With his apprenticeship nearing its end he’s eager to escape the confines of the isolated swing station which he’s been sharing with stationmaster and ’tutor’ Edgar Buchanan. The first whiff of danger comes with the news that a notorious outlaw called Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe) has broken out of prison and has already committed a murder. The first consequence is that Owens now finds himself saddled with task of putting up a disgruntled female passenger (Susan Hayward) and her child, since company policy dictates that the stage can’t carry them in these circumstances. It should come as no surprise that Zimmerman and his men duly arrive and take control of the station. So far this is all fairly standard fare, but the second half of the film really cranks up the tension as Owens has to play a cat and mouse game with Zimmerman to ensure not only his own survival but that of the woman and child also. The real surprise is who comes to dominate proceedings and gains the upper hand in the end.

Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward in a tight spot in more ways than one.

Susan Hayward was one of those strong women who seemed to dominate the screen effortlessly. From her first appearance in Rawhide, she grabs hold of the viewer’s attention and never lets go until the credits roll. People often use, and indeed overuse, the term powerhouse performance but it’s no exaggeration to say that Hayward delivers one here. She proves herself tough and resourceful enough to be a match for any of the male characters. However, if this is one of the great strengths of the film it’s also the factor that damages it. While it’s no criticism of Hayward, both Power and Marlowe pale in comparison. Power’s character is a weak one from the outset and remains so for the duration. In certain films that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but westerns tend to suffer when the male lead appears ineffectual. There is a similar problem with Hugh Marlowe’s villain, who is a bit colorless and just doesn’t appear to have the steel required to control a band of desperadoes. In fact, Marlowe looks completely out of place in this setting, although he is given a backstory to help explain the cultured nature of Zimmerman. Now, this kind of thing could hamstring a film, but it’s saved by the performances of Zimmerman’s sidekicks, particularly Jack Elam and Dean Jagger. Elam was an actor who was prone to hamming it up and devouring the scenery, and his turn as the depraved Tevis does just that. However, given Marlowe’s shortcomings, this adds some much needed meat to the outlaws’ threats.

Fox put Rawhide out on DVD in R1 last spring in a box which bundled it together with Garden of Evil and The Gunfighter. Typical of much of Fox’s output, the transfer is excellent and the disc has some nice extras, including a short featurette on Susan Hayward and another on the Lone Pine locations. All told,  Rawhide is a fine western with some very tense and genuinely dramatic moments. It’s not quite in the top tier, largely for the reasons I mentioned above, but is well worth an hour and a half of anyone’s time. It’s been suggested to me that there are some similarities to Boetticher’s The Tall T, and I can see where that may be the case. However, the similarities are really only plot points and both the characterization and direction mark them out as quite different films. Having said that, I do think that those who enjoyed Boetticher’s spare tales of tight knit groups in a tense situation would definitely take something positive from Rawhide.

The Westerner

Posted on January 11th, 2009 in 1940s, Westerns, William Wyler, Gary Cooper by Colin

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One of the recurring themes of the western is the conflict between the cattlemen of the open range and the fence-building homesteaders, or sodbusters. In truth, this clash (freedom, as represented by the range, and the slow encroachment of civil society from the east) lies near the very heart of the genre. It is this which forms the framework of The Westerner (1940), but the film really revolves around the relationship between two very different men. As such it eschews action in favour of character development, and slots nicely into the group of more mature westerns that were starting to appear at the time.   

The film’s prologue sets the scene in the years following the Civil War when the westward expansion was in full swing. Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan) has established himself as the self-styled “Law West of the Pecos” in his own remote corner of Texas. He is shown dispensing his own brand of justice from his saloon/courtroom in the case of a man accused of committing one of the most serious of all crimes, that of murdering a steer. Having tried, convicted and carried out the sentence personally, he comes face to face with his next defendant. Cole Harden (Gary Cooper) is a drifter and saddle tramp who’s had the misfortune of buying a stolen horse. This is another capital crime and the case looks to be an open and shut one. When the jury retires to back room to play cards and down some liquor before delivering the inevitable guilty verdict, Harden takes the only path open to him. Noticing that the saloon has been made up as a virtual shrine to Lily Langtry, Harden claims to have made the acquaintance of the judge’s beloved actress and to have a lock of her hair in his possession. Well, clearly such a man can’t simply be hauled out and hanged so the sentence is suspended and the two men form an uneasy alliance. However, Harden finds himself drawn to Jane Ellen Matthews (Doris Davenport), daughter of a local settler, and is soon caught between the two rival factions.

I am the law - Walter Brennan

Gary Cooper was a highly deceptive actor. There are those who would claim that his laconic style was wooden and that he couldn’t act, but to say that is to ignore the subtlety of the man’s craft. There was no expansiveness to Cooper but everything was communicated through his face and small unpretentious gestures. There is a marvellous example of this during the trial scene in this movie where fear, calculation and, ultimately, triumph are all readable just from his eyes. He’s at his best in the scenes he shares with Walter Brennan but, perversely, has every one of those scenes stolen right from under his nose. I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that Brennan was the finest character actor American cinema has ever produced. He turned in performances which ranged from fine to excellent in anything I’ve seen him in. His Judge Roy Bean is a multi-layered character who goes from mean and ornery to endearingly childlike and back again. It’s no mean acting feat to make this figure sympathetic, but Brennan managed it and picked up his third Oscar for his troubles. Visually, the film looks great, due in no small part to the photography of Gregg Toland. With all this talent at his disposal, director William Wyler marshals it with his typical professionalism. He offers up some fine cinematic moments, such as the attack on the homesteaders. In the midst of a thanksgiving ceremony, as the camera surveys a rich, tranquil and fertile land to the accompaniment of noble words, the idyll is abruptly shattered by a murderous arson raid. As flames sear the screen, the settlers paradise is transformed in a matter of minutes into a scorched, desolate landscape. Those smouldering, blackened ruins of former homes pointing accusingly towards the heavens are an eloquent reminder of the fickle and dangerous unpredictability of frontier life.

The Westerner was reissued on DVD in R1 late last spring by MGM/Fox and the transfer is a very fine one. I can’t say I noticed any significant damage marks or signs of manipulation, just a crisp, clean B&W image. Previous MGM releases were no more than adequate but the distribution deal with Fox seems to have led to an improvement in quality. The only criticism is the lack of any extra content, but I guess you  can’t have everything. I’d rate The Westerner as a good example of a ’40s oater for grown-ups; it has drama and it’s moving but it also has a vein of sly, dark humour running through it. Recommended.