3 Godfathers

Posted on December 17th, 2010 in 1940s, John Ford, Westerns, John Wayne by Colin

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There haven’t been too many westerns that are set around Christmas, in fact I’m struggling to think of any others apart from 3 Godfathers (1948) and the earlier versions of the same story. While it starts out as a fairly standard western it soon turns into a play on the nativity story and the journey of the three wise men. It’s one of John Ford’s more sentimental pieces and the symbolism is laid on a little thick at times, but the cast and visuals carry it through the sticky patches. I’ll grant that the whole thing can seem a bit contrived yet the story, and its message of redemption and the good that lurks within all of us, remains affecting.

The movie opens in fairly conventional fashion, with the three main protagonists Robert Hightower (John Wayne), Pedro (Pedro Amendariz) and The Abilene Kid (Harry Carey Jr) surveying a town they’re about to enter and rob. Before they can get down to business, however, they get chatting to a local resident (Ward Bond) who turns out to be the local lawman. Thus far much of the action is played for laughs, and broad Fordian laughs at that, and the light heartedness even extends to the raid on the bank. The first really serious note is struck when The Abilene Kid takes a bullet to the shoulder as they attempt their getaway. As the three men race out into the desert with the law hot on their heels, one shot finds its target and punctures the vitally important water bag. Safe in the knowledge that no one is going to travel far in the parched wilderness with only a limited supply of water the lawman eases back and sets about laying a trap. That singe shot has essentially sealed the fate of the three outlaws, as they discover that the law (with the help of the railroad) is one jump ahead of them and bent on keeping them away from any source of water. In an effort to outsmart the authorities, the men double back but in so doing stumble upon a situation that will bring about profound changes within them all. They come across an abandoned wagon containing a pregnant woman who’s about to give birth. Their most basic human instincts are aroused by this pitiful scene and, after seeing that the baby is delivered, find themselves giving their oath to the now dying mother to protect her infant son. From this point on a gradual transformation takes place wherein each man suppresses his own selfish needs in order to ensure the fulfillment of their promise. As they trudge across the gruelling desert, shedding their possessions along the way, they come to view the protection of their new godson as the only purpose in their lives. As such, their trek turns into a kind of pilgrimage to cleanse themselves of the evil that had motivated them until that time. As I said the symbolism can be a little heavy handed (following a star to the town of New Jerusalem etc.) but the hardship of the journey and the fact that these hardened criminals are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of an innocent and a promise prevents the film from becoming a parody.

Three wise men? - Harry Carey Jr, Pedro Armendariz & John Wayne in 3 Godfathers

John Ford opened the film with an onscreen tribute to his departed friend Harry Carey Sr and then took the further step of casting the latter’s son in the pivotal role of The Abilene Kid, the conscience of the three bad men. However, that’s about as far as the old man’s sentimentality went for it’s well documented that he drove his cast mercilessly in the searing heat of Death Valley. Despite, or maybe because, of this the performances of the three leads are first rate. Carey in particular is touching as the callow youth who’s simultaneously running from and striving to retain some of his boyish innocence. The way he calmly accepts his fate before such thoughts enter his companions’ heads is a fine piece of acting. In fact, Ford granted the young man some of the best scenes in the movie: singing over the grave of the baby’s mother and then his own death scene. Both Armendariz and Wayne were handed more straightforward roles as the older and more experienced men and they don’t disappoint either. The part of Robert Hightower has none of the complexity of Wayne’s more famous and prestigious performances yet he does all the script and director ask of him, and carries the picture alone for a significant time. The bulk of the action takes place outdoors on location in Death Valley and Ford creates some beautiful and bleak images - the dust storm (with all its attendant symbolism) being a particular highlight. The support cast is filled up with all the familiar faces from the “Stock Company”, Ward Bond and Mae Marsh getting the lion’s share of the screen time.

3 Godfathers is widely available on DVD from Warner. I have the R2 disc, but I’ve heard that the US version is the same, and the transfer is a good one. Print damage is minimal and the colour is strong, the outdoor scenes faring best to my eyes. The only extra included is the theatrical trailer, and a variety of subtitle options. While this is not one of Ford’s very best, it remains a top film by anyone’s standards. In a way, it’s what you might call a typical Ford movie in that it contains most of his trademark visual and thematic motifs. All in all, it’s a satisfying and uplifting production that works well both as a seasonal film and as a traditional western.

Finally, as this will be my last post before the holidays I want to take the time to wish all those who have followed, commented or just stopped by a very happy and peaceful Christmas. Be seeing you again in the New Year. 

Cash on Demand

Posted on December 9th, 2010 in 1960s, Mystery/Thriller, Peter Cushing by Colin

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Well it’s almost that time of year again. Therefore, it’s also time to feature a few films that in one way or another relate to Christmas. Aside from the big, traditional crowd pleasers it’s always nice to give a bit of attention to those other movies that can sometimes get lost in the mix. Cash on Demand (1961) is a good example - an obscure little Hammer production whose reputation ought to rise now that it’s finally available to view on DVD. It’s a tight and incredibly suspenseful little thriller that skilfully weaves a seasonal message into the tense plot and leaves the viewer feeling satisfied.   

It’s December 23rd and a small provincial bank is opening up and preparing to welcome the first customers of a wintry day. The staff arrive one by one and greet each other in the familiar and informal way of those long accustomed to working together. Thoughts run to the upcoming staff party and the atmosphere is warm and cosy. However, the arrival of the branch manager, Fordyce (Peter Cushing), causes a definite chill to settle over the establishment. Fordyce is a fastidious and uptight man, almost to the point of caricature. His overwhelming sense of propriety not only dampens the pre-Christmas humour of his subordinates, but leaves them feeling both threatened and vulnerable. A minor error on the part of one of the staff is latched onto and blown out of all proportion. Fordyce even goes so far as to declare that he’ll have to seriously consider the future of this long serving employee. The whole dynamic changes, however, with the unexpected arrival of an insurance company representative, Colonel Gore Hepburn (Andre Morell). Hepburn explains he is on a tour of the banks covered by his company in order to inspect their security arrangements due to the increased risk of robberies. In fact, Hepburn is not all he claims to be, and it soon transpires that he is merely using this cover story as a means to gain access to the bank and carry out a raid on the well stocked vault that is both audacious and ruthless in its execution. From this point on the story turns into a psychological duel between Fordyce and Hepburn, with the latter rarely relinquishing the upper hand. This all plays out both as a straight thriller and a new spin on the Scrooge story, with Hepburn’s tormenting of Fordyce serving the dual purpose of facilitating his co-operation while also teaching the fussy branch manager an object lesson in the importance of charity towards his fellow man. It could be argued that the ending cops out, but I’d say that were it not to finish up the way it does then the story’s whole point would be lost - and with it much of the magic that distinguishes the movie from countless other heist pictures.

A spanner in the works - Peter Cushing and Andre Morell in Cash on Demand.

Although director Quentin Lawrence made a handful of cinema features the bulk of his work was in TV, and that background actually serves him well here. The tighter pacing and limited sets common to the small screen are to the fore in this movie. The action (which is essentially played out in real time) is for the most part confined to the bank, and particularly Fordyce’s office and the underground vault. While I wouldn’t exactly call it claustrophobic, it does have the effect of focusing the attention on the actors. Not wishing to take anything away from the support cast, but this is basically a two-hander between Cushing and Morell. The pair had formed a successful partnership two years earlier in Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and this film gave them the opportunity to team up again, albeit in very different roles. Cushing’s portrayal of Fordyce is really spot on, all icy efficiency and repressed emotion at the beginning but gradually cracking under the enormous pressure to reveal a lonely soul who elicits genuine sympathy. There’s nothing fake about the transformation in Fordyce’s character, the change of perception coming about slowly and convincingly as Hepburn mercilessly strips away the veneer to expose the true man. If anything Andre Morell just about trumps Cushing’s work in this one. He plays Hepburn as suave, smart, hearty, calculating, ruthless and wry - often all within a single short scene, and always with absolute conviction. The result of all this is that the viewer’s sympathy is continually being toyed with to such an extent that it’s almost impossible to decide who you’re really rooting for. It’s a treat to watch these two old pros holding the floor for virtually the whole movie, and doing so in such a mesmerizing fashion.

Currently, Cash on Demand is only available on DVD as part of the Hammer- Icons of Suspense set from Sony in the US. The film has been transferred at 1.66:1 anamorphic, and it’s very clean, sharp and detailed. Since all the titles in the set come two to a disc it may be that the bit rate suffers a little, but that’s not an issue that I can say I noticed when I watched it. There are no extra features at all, although the highly attractive price and the fact that the whole set offers six extremely rare Hammer thrillers offsets any complaints on that score. This is a film that I first saw at least twenty years ago when it got a TV showing, and then not again until I picked up this set. It’s one of those unusual movies that sticks in the mind once viewed, and it was high up on my list of wants for a long time. The Icons set is one of my favourite releases from 2010 and the presence of Cash on Demand is a large part of the reason. It’s well worth tracking this one down.

Devil’s Doorway

Posted on December 2nd, 2010 in 1950s, Westerns, Anthony Mann, Robert Taylor by Colin

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Before 1950 the injustices visited upon the Native American people were essentially ignored, or at the very least only touched on, in the cinema. However, in the space of a year two major Hollywood productions would use the plight of the Indian as their central theme. Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow was notable for its sympathetic portrayal of the Apache, but Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway (1950) went even further by concentrating on the naked and ugly racism confronting those Indians who had done their best to embrace the ways and laws of the white man. It’s a much more tragic film than Broken Arrow and consequently more powerful; the fact that this power remains undiminished even for a modern audience demonstrates just how radical a picture this must have been sixty years ago.

Lance Poole (Robert Taylor) is a Shoshone who has decided to adopt the classic American mindset i.e. looking to the future rather than dwelling on the past. Not only has he anglicized his name but he has also taken a huge leap of faith by enlisting in the white man’s army and fighting in the Civil War. Returning home to Wyoming as a highly decorated veteran (having won the Congressional Medal of Honor no less), he is full of optimism and hopes for a bright future. He’s confident that the recent horrors of the battlefield will have purged the nation of its desire for further bloodshed. However, soon after his triumphant return he has to face the fact that not everything or everyone has changed as much as he might have hoped. The old grudges and prejudices still live on in the hearts of some, notably an eastern lawyer, Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern), who’s moved to Wyoming for his health. Coolan’s snide comments are only a foretaste of what’s to come though, as the local doctor’s refusal to attend to Poole’s ailing father until it’s too late proves. While Poole busies himself building up his cattle ranch and his fortune, Coolan is angling for a chance to seize the ancestral land and teach the red man a lesson on climbing above his station in life. Coolan’s opportunity comes with the Homestead Act, which allowed for the breaking up of former tribal land into individual claims, and he encourages a mass migration of sheepmen in the hopes of forcing Poole off his land. Although Poole is  initially persuaded to hold his fire and try for a compromise by female lawyer, Orrie Masters (Paula Raymond), the scene is set for violent confrontation between the Shoshone and the sheepmen that Coolan is ruthlessly manipulating. As tensions rise, and the viewer’s outrage at the double standards and open bigotry on display similarly escalate, Poole must finally concede that his dreams of peaceful co-existence are nothing more than the foolish longings of a man too eager to buy into the glib promises of pragmatic politicians. When he dons his old uniform, with his medal proudly pinned in place, to face the same army that he once served with distinction there is a poignancy and irony that drives the message of the film home most eloquently.

Pipe dreams - Robert Taylor in Devil's Doorway.

Anthony Mann had spent the 40s building up his reputation with a series of tight little noirs frequently lensed by master cameraman John Alton. Both men brought their style and sensibility to a western setting in Devil’s Doorway. Given Mann and Alton’s background it’s not altogether surprising that the movie has both the look and feel of a film noir; there are plenty of dark, shadowy scenes and an abundance of low angle shots. One scene that highlights this perfectly is the fist fight that Poole is goaded into in the saloon by Coolan and one of his cohorts. Everything is shot in the cramped confines of the bar with smoke and shadow blending together as the two men hammer each other savagely - there’s no musical accompaniment to distract from the sound of the punches landing, and the quick cutting alternates between the increasingly battered faces of the fighters and the even more grotesque visages of the rubbernecking customers. Having said that, there’s no shortage of more traditional genre imagery either, and Mann demonstrates a breadth of vision and skill with large-scale action scenes that would be further developed in both his later westerns and epics. For me, Robert Taylor was convincing as the Shoshone warrior caught between two camps. He injected a huge amount of humanity into the role of Lance Poole and produced a fully rounded character that transcended the “noble savage” caricature. I guess the black and white photography helps, but I never caught myself thinking that this was just a guy in dark make-up playacting. Louis Calhern also did sterling work as the slimy lawyer who uses convenient statutes as a means of disguising his own prejudices. Paula Raymond was good enough as the woman caught in the middle, but the script shies away from depicting an all-out romance with Poole - the movie was in all honesty already pushing the envelope as far as could be expected for the era. I might also mention the strong support particularly from Spring Byington and Edgar Buchanan.

Currently, there are only two editions of Devil’s Doorway available on DVD. There is an MOD disc from the Warner Archive in the US and a Region 2 pressed disc from Warner/Impulso in Spain. From the perspective of international customers neither one is ideal - the US disc being both expensive to acquire and on potentially suspect media, while the Spanish release is exclusive to El Corte Ingles for who knows how long with the attendant shipping costs. I viewed the Spanish disc, and the transfer is generally a strong one with good contrast and detail. However, it is unrestored and there are the usual scratches, nicks and blemishes - though never to the point of distraction. There is English and Spanish audio with removable Spanish subs. The disc comes in a slip case with a 34 page booklet, in Spanish naturally, that contains a very nice selection of still photographs and original advertising material. When one considers the development of the western, and the career of Anthony Mann too, this is an important title. As such, it’s disappointing that it should be marketed so restrictively on both sides of the Atlantic. However, the Spanish disc does at least afford the film a degree of respect that’s lacking in the US release. Devil’s Doorway seems to have got lost between Mann’s earlier noir pictures and his subsequent psychological westerns, but it actually acts as something of a bridge. It’s a film that’s intellectually and emotionally satisfying while it also provides solid western entertainment. Recommended.