The Stalking Moon

Posted on September 27th, 2009 in 1960s, Westerns, Gregory Peck by Colin

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Thanks to the suggestion of a fellow blogger, le0pard13, I decided to dig out and rewatch Robert Mulligan’s 1968 suspense western The Stalking Moon. Although the film contains its fair share of action, it is essentially a slow burning mood picture which builds tension almost imperceptibly yet inexorably towards a conclusion that is both nerve-wracking and satisfying. A good part of its strength comes from the fact that it can be approached from a variety of angles; as the standard chase picture, an examination of race relations, a love story, a tale of friendship, and it even has a suggestion of the supernatural.

Sam Varner (Gregory Peck) is an army scout on the verge of retirement, having already bought a ranch in New Mexico. His last job for the army, helping bring a band of Apaches in to the reservation, leads to the rescue of a white woman who has been held captive for ten years. This woman, Sarah Carver (Eva Marie Saint), has a young half- breed son in tow and manages to persuade Varner to escort her to the nearest coach stop and help her on her way. At first, her eagerness to distance herself from her rescuers might appear to be rooted in some sense of shame at having given herself to the Apache - an idea reinforced by an uncomfortable stopover at a remote swing station. However, it soon becomes apparent that her desire to be on the move is based on an altogether more serious threat. It turns out that her boy is the son of Salvaje, a renegade Apache with a fearsome reputation. So begins a relentless pursuit that leads to Varner’s ranch and, eventually, a one man siege of the log cabin that seems to grow smaller by the second. All the while, the spectral presence of Salvaje lurks in the shadows or flits from rock to rock and the viewer starts to wonder if this man is indeed human. The film’s masterstroke is keeping Salvaje off the screen for so long; he remains a cipher, a kind of bogeyman who is spoken of in hushed tones but never seen. Even when he does appear, we are only given a fleeting glimpse of him before he vanishes again like some terrible force of nature leaving death and chaos in his wake.

A hunting we will go - Gregory Peck finds himself backed into a corner.

Gregory Peck plays another of his stoical, straight down the line characters in The Stalking Moon. In truth, it’s one of those classic western roles wherein the hero knows that the right thing to do is the unhealthy option but goes ahead with it all the same. In this case Varner has the chance to put Sarah on a train and let someone else deal with the whole mess, but his own sense of honour rules that out. As he toys with his food and gazes repeatedly at the lonely, forlorn figure sitting on the train platform it’s obvious what he’s going to do. Peck was always fine in those parts where his character had to draw on that inner steel to tough out the most hopeless of situations, and the role of Sam Varner might have been tailor made for him. Eva Marie Saint is also good in a difficult part, a woman who has become something of a stranger among her own people and little more than a misplaced possession to the mysterious Salvaje. In a movie that’s short on dialogue she has few lines to speak yet manages to convey the vulnerability of her character without diluting any of the resolve that would have been required to live the way she did. Robert Forster makes an early appearance as Peck’s half breed friend and fellow scout who proves his loyalty right to the end. The Stalking Moon was the only western made by director Robert Mulligan, and that’s something of a shame since he did an excellent job and seemed at home in the genre. He made excellent use of the locations (Nevada standing in for New Mexico) and the widescreen photography to emphasise the isolation of his characters. The open spaces of the first half of the film highlight not only the vastness of the country but also the relentless nature of Salvaje who will follow Sarah to the ends of the earth if necessary. In contrast, the second half becomes claustrophobic with Varner’s cabin, and the encroaching mountains and trees, becoming the focal point.

Warner put The Stalking Moon out on DVD last year in R1 as part of their Western Classics box and it’s also available in much of R2, though not the UK yet, as a stand alone title. It’s been given a fine anamorphic scope transfer with good colour and detail. The disc is as basic as they come without even a scene selection menu, but that seems to be par for the course with WB at the moment. Having said that, it’s a movie that does manage to sell itself on its own merits. There are those who have put forward the theory that Once Upon A Time In The West has a hint of the supernatural about it, with the possibility of Harmonica being an avenging ghost. Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider also play around with a similar idea and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to view Salvaje in The Stalking Moon in that company. Anyway, it’s a damn fine film and one that’s well worth seeing.

The Bravados

Posted on September 17th, 2009 in 1950s, Westerns, Henry King, Gregory Peck, Stephen Boyd by Colin

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There’s something so deeply satisfying about watching 1950s westerns that I sometimes feel I could dedicate an entire blog to them and still only scratch the surface. Just about every star and director of note managed to produce, at the very least, one quality western during those few short years. While the cinematography ran from monochrome and Academy ratio to technicolor drenched scope, one feature remained constant: maturity of theme.

The Bravados (1958) opens in dramatic fashion with a silhouetted rider driving himself on through the night to the accompaniment of Lionel Newman’s pounding score while the blood red titles flash onto the screen. The rider is revealed to be Jim Douglass (Gregory Peck), a man obsessed enough to ride a hundred miles just to witness the execution of four men he’s never seen before (Stephen Boyd, Henry Silva, Lee Van Cleef and Albert Salmi). Initially there’s no explanation offered for Douglass’ desire to see these men keep their date with the hangman. The only thing that’s clear is that he’s nursing a deep and bitter hatred - perfectly realized in a wordless scene in the jail as Douglass walks along outside the bars and rakes each man in turn with a look of such malice that they flinch as though a lash had been applied. It’s only after the four have escaped, taking the storekeepers daughter hostage, that the reason for Douglass’ personal vendetta is revealed. It transpires that his wife has been raped and murdered and he believes that these men are the ones responsible. What follows is a tale of pursuit, revenge, realization, and finally a kind of sour redemption. The only false note in the picture is the introduction of an unnecessary and less than believable romance between Douglass and a Mexican rancher (a woefully miscast Joan Collins). This really adds nothing whatsoever to the film and actually serves to weaken it - the final ten minutes pack a powerful emotional punch but the last shot takes a good deal of the sting out of it. I think it’s also worth mentioning that I was left wondering if The Bravados had any influence on Sergio Leone. Maybe it’s just me but I couldn’t help but notice parallels with For a Few Dollars More: the taciturn anti-hero, the watch with his dead wife’s photo that Douglass carries and shows to his victims before killing them, the grimy and sadistic villains, and the ride along the deserted street of a Mexican pueblo before a showdown.

A bitter pill - Gregory Peck learns the shocking truth.

Gregory Peck gave a remarkably intense performance in a complex role that’s basically a study of bitterness, obsession and false conviction. His playing of a man who has cast aside his soul in the pursuit of vengeance is pitch perfect. As the story progresses the viewer understands that Douglass has become no better than the criminals he is ruthlessly hunting down, but it’s his own final realization of that fact that raises the movie to a higher class. Peck does a fine job of showing the psychological disintegration of a man who has his illusions stripped away and must henceforth look at himself in a new and disturbing light. Stephen Boyd clearly had a ball portraying the chief badman and slipped from smirking charm to menacing brutishness with ease. I’ve always been a big fan of Boyd and have enjoyed his performances in everything I’ve seen him in. His best work was as the villain and when the big lead parts came along he was a touch unlucky - a poorly written role and no chemistry with Sophia Loren in Fall of the Roman Empire, almost becoming James Bond, and having production delays force him to relinquish the role of Mark Antony to Richard Burton in Cleopatra. I was prepared to write some scathing comments about the wooden acting of Joan Collins in this movie but I can’t seem to work up the enthusiasm - although how anyone ever thought it was a good idea to cast her as a Mexican cattlewoman just beggars belief. Henry King was one of those directors that the studio system seemed to have in abundance, the skilled craftsman who could effortlessly churn out quality pictures in just about every genre. His name is hardly a familiar one today but a glance at his filmography makes for impressive reading and contains far more hits than misses. King’s work on The Bravados is aided immeasurably by Leon Shamroy’s cinematography, which mixes stunning landscape views with moody day for night shooting to great effect.

The Bravados is available on DVD from Fox and their R2 Studio Classics version (I imagine the R1 is broadly similar) is a perfectly fine anamorphic scope transfer with nice colours. There’s not an extra feature in sight (I think the R1 has a trailer) but it is cheap. This is a movie that often gets overlooked and is rarely mentioned, but if you’re a fan of westerns from this era you need to see it. Highly recommended.