Born to Be Bad

Posted on January 28th, 2011 in 1950s, Nicholas Ray, Robert Ryan by Colin

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Strange how a title can prove misleading, isn’t it? Then again, it’s not always just the title. Take Born to Be Bad (1950) - directed by Nicholas Ray, photographed by Nicholas Musuraca, starring Robert Ryan and appearing in a few noir lists. When you bear all that in mind it’s not unreasonable, I think, to expect to see a good solid noir picture, maybe even a neglected gem. However, appearances are all too often deceptive and that’s certainly the case with this one. I’ll grant that the plot follows a noirish theme and strays towards that elusive dark style at times, but it never quite gets there and remains rooted firmly in melodramatic territory - and soapy melodramatics at that.

The story concerns Christabel (Joan Fontaine) and her determined climb to the top of the social ladder. We first see her after her arrival at the apartment of Donna (Joan Leslie), one of her wealthy uncle’s employees, who’s about to throw a party. Christabel is to attend business school with a view to later working in the uncle’s publishing firm. The first impression we get is of a shy, socially naive woman who’s slightly overwhelmed by the sophisticated and opulent world she’s suddenly arrived in. This feeling is further heightened when she encounters the cocksure and worldly Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan), an author who’s recently returned from China. This initial meeting sets the tone for the subsequent relationship between those two characters; Bradley all wisecracks and confidence and Christabel holding him off, but not too far off. The apparent innocence of Christabel is nothing but a sham to facilitate her own scheming though. From the moment she comes across her new flatmate’s wealthy and patrician fiance Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott) she gradually reveals her true nature (to the audience at least) as she sets her sights on displacing Donna and ensuring her own comfortable future. There are no surprises in the way the plot develops and it’s this predictability that weakens the movie most. While the story has an inherently noir theme it can’t escape being a study of social manners and hypocrisy, and all the cliches that involves. It’s also not helped by the light tone that seems to pervade it, with the jokey, mocking ending doing nothing to dispel that.

Tough love - Joan Fontaine and Robert Ryan in Born to Be Bad.

Nicholas Ray’s directing career was highly unpredictable and could veer wildly from the brilliant to the mediocre. It’s hard to believe that this sudsy concoction came from the same man who produced dark masterpieces like In a Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground. Of course, Howard Hughes’ notorious tampering may have had something to do with the flat and apathetic feel that Ray’s work here inspires. When the plot is a humdrum affair then you look to the visuals to add some life but neither Ray nor Musuraca manage to create anything especially memorable and I caught myself checking out the counter a couple of times while watching, never a good sign. The casting is generally good, although I have to admit I’ve never been a particular fan of Ms Fontaine’s work outside of Rebecca and Suspicion, her two collaborations with Hitchcock. I wouldn’t say I dislike her performances as such, but I’d rarely seek out a film due to her presence - that innocent vulnerability she projected could be used to good effect but it’s also a characteristic that tends to be restrictive. In Born to Be Bad the kind of duality the role calls for isn’t altogether successful as Fontaine’s “bad girl” moments are never entirely convincing. Joan Leslie, on the other hand, is much better as the spurned Donna. She brings a far more believable quality to her playing, and her growing suspicion of Christabel’s motives progresses naturally. Robert Ryan and Zachary Scott were both handed fairly typical parts for them, and they do all that’s asked satisfactorily. Ryan has that familiar swagger that suggests something hidden deeper inside, but his character doesn’t get the chance to develop much and kind of tails off as the picture goes on. Scott got the better written role and thus his Curtis Carey comes across as more rounded, although Ryan delivers the best of some fairly ripe dialogue. 

The French DVD from Montparnasse is quite typical of their RKO titles, a little soft and thick in places but generally clean and I wasn’t aware of any damage to the print. As with all their releases the subs aren’t forced on the English track and extras are non-existent, apart from the usual introduction. I can’t say I got much pleasure from this movie; there are some nice performances but that’s about it as far as I’m concerned. Maybe I went in expecting something different - correction, I did go in expecting something different - and the film I got fell short. If you’re after an undiscovered noir then this isn’t the place to look, but if you want some social melodrama with a touch of darkness it may just fit the bill.

Breakheart Pass

Posted on January 23rd, 2011 in 1970s, Charles Bronson, Westerns, Tom Gries by Colin

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A Charles Bronson western written by a Scotsman and combining elements of a whodunnit and an espionage thriller sounds very much like a recipe for disaster. Despite that, Breakheart Pass (1975) actually works quite well; it’s never going to be considered a classic but it is wonderfully entertaining and looks great. A fine cast and some first class talent behind the camera have a lot to do with this of course. For me, the fact that a significant part of the action takes place aboard a train adds to the pleasure, as I’m a huge fan of anything that exploits the dramatic possibilities of having a group of suspicious characters all cooped up together and denied the opportunity to escape. 

A military train carrying reinforcements, and medicines is bound for Fort Humboldt, where a diptheria epidemic is raging out of control. Aside from soldiers, there’s a number of civilian passengers aboard, all with official reasons for being there. Their numbers are swollen right at the beginning though when Marshal Pearce (Ben Johnson) muscles his way through the protocol in order to get both himself and his newly acquired prisoner, a wanted murderer and arsonist, John Deakin (Charles Bronson) a couple of berths. Before the train has even pulled away from the halt two army officers have mysteriously vanished, and it’s clear from the shifty behaviour of practically every passenger that nothing is quite as it seems. While the locomotive chugs its way towards the stricken fort the unexplained incidents, and the bodies, start to pile up ominously. The senior army officer, Major Claremont (Ed Lauter), is growing uneasy while the Marshal and the most prominent passenger, Governor Fairchild (Richard Crenna), seem reluctant to treat matters as anything more than ill fortune and coincidence. All the while, Deakin moves surreptitiously from carriage to carriage pursuing some undefined agenda of his own. It’s only when the troop cars are sheared off and sent careening away into mid-air and subsequent carnage that it becomes clear to everyone how grave the danger is, and that a ruthless killer is in their midst. The movie trades heavily on the fact that all the passengers are potential suspects; it’s a constant guessing game for the viewer to try to figure out who’s behind the ever increasing mayhem. Just about everyone appears to have something to hide yet it’s difficult to see how any individual could wreak such havoc. Of course all is eventually revealed before a slam bang finish draws the curtain on an hour and a half of solid entertainment.

Ben Johnson and Charles Bronson are among those doing the fencing on the way to Breakheart Pass.

Most of Alistair MacLean’s books which were adapted for the big screen have something to keep you interested. While his writing was fairly formulaic, it’s not hard to see why so many of his stories ended up being filmed; they tend to have a cinematic quality in that the plots are definitely to the fore and the characters usually have a shadowy aspect that’s only gradually revealed. The biggest failing tends to be in the dialogue, his later work suffering especially. Breakheart Pass has a few such instances, when characters come out with lines that just don’t ring true in any way. Director Tom Gries had already directed a couple of very enjoyable westerns, the one of particular note being Will Penny with Charlton Heston. His shooting of the action scenes is hard to fault and, apart from the free-for-all finale, the fight atop the moving train is one of the best parts of the movie. Bronson and former light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore get to slug it out in an excellently choreographed scene that’s tense, exciting and real looking - no doubt the presence of the great Yakima Canutt, as stunt coordinator had something to do with it too. Of course, the aforementioned crash of the runaway troop cars is another of the big set pieces that’s both mesmerizing and horrifying. Furthermore, Lucien Ballard was on lens duty and, as you would expect, the photography of the outdoor scenes is quite spectacular. And rounding out the crew is Jerry Goldsmith, who provided another of his memorably upbeat scores that draws you in from the moment the title credits roll. As far as the acting’s concerned, Bronson is his usual laconic self, speaking only when there’s a need to but holding off on the physical stuff for long stretches. His character is no brainless lug and he plays him with restraint and enough thoughtfulness to make him believable. Although the wife was also in the cast there’s, mercifully in my opinion, no contrived romance to take the attention away from the twisty plot. Ben Johnson is always a pleasure to watch and just got better and better with age. His character isn’t the best defined one that he played but he still manages to make his mark on the movie - all his little gestures and his characteristic delivery keep reminding you that you’re watching a genuine westerner in action. Richard Crenna and Ed Lauter, as the Governor and the Major, have just enough oily charm and nervy anxiety respectively to keep the viewer guessing about their motives too.

MGM’s UK DVD of Breakheart Pass is a reasonably good effort. The anamorphic transfer is the kind that’s not especially remarkable but doesn’t have any major issues either. The colour looks true enough to my eyes and there’s no notable damage to the print - the image doesn’t pop off the screen but nor does it disappoint. The only extra included is the trailer, along with a variety of subtitle options. So, we’re talking here about a movie that’s best described as good, competent entertainment. It doesn’t offer anything groundbreaking but there are far worse ways to spend an hour and a half. It’s the kind of film that will obviously grip the viewer more the first time it’s seen, however, there’s enough in the action scenes, acting and visuals to ensure it’s worth revisiting.

Ramrod

Posted on January 17th, 2011 in 1940s, Westerns, Veronica Lake, Joel McCrea, Andre de Toth by Colin

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Range wars have always been a favourite backdrop for westerns, men struggling over a piece of land upon which they have built their dreams being an ideal source of conflict. It’s not so common though to see a woman as one of the aggressors, and certainly not one as petite and vulnerable looking as Veronica Lake. However, if there’s a lesson to be learned from Ramrod (1947) it’s surely that one should never be taken in by appearances.

This is a lean, brisk movie where things happen fast and no time is wasted. Within minutes of the opening the main protagonists of the story are introduced and their motivations laid out. Everything revolves around Connie Dickason (Veronica Lake), a headstrong young woman hell bent on establishing herself in her own right and independent of her rancher father. We’re pitched immediately into the middle of a potentially explosive situation where Connie’s betrothed, a sheepman, is about to confront her father and his enforcer, Frank Ivey (Preston Foster). Ivey is the man Connie’s father would like to see her paired off with and he’s not averse to the idea himself. When the the sheepman decides that he values his hide more and thus backs down Connie turns her attention to a drifting cowboy and former drunk, Dave Nash (Joel McCrea). Nash has no interest in involving himself in the Dickason’s affairs at first, but a run-in with the bullying Ivey leads to a change of heart. He decides to sign on with her as her foreman, or ramrod, and face down her father and Ivey. Nash wants to use the law to secure Connie’s rights but she has other ideas on how to go about things. At the heart of the picture are Connie’s machinations, seductively playing the men off against each other to achieve her own ends. All of this deceit inevitably leads to tragedy and the loss of many innocent lives, although Connie blithely dismisses the bloodshed as a necessary if distasteful step on the road to fulfilling her ambitions. It’s only at the end, when her dreams are almost within her grasp, that this scheming puppeteer realises that her self-absorbed ruthlessness has driven away the very thing she desired most.

Joel McCrea in Ramrod.

Joel McCrea’s portrayal of Nash is spot on, his calm and inner strength fitting for a man who has come face to face with personal tragedy and dragged himself back from despair. His honest, straight shooting persona is also ideal for a man who finds himself duped and manipulated by Connie. In fact, every man in the film falls prey to her deceptions at one point or another. Lake was clearly trading on her film noir credentials as she plays what is essentially a femme fatale out west. Her diminutive stature obviously rules out the possibility of her involving herself directly in any of the violence but her awareness of and confidence in her own femininity, and its attendant power, ensures that she calls the shots at almost every point. Director Andre de Toth was married to Lake at this time and he handles not only her scenes but the whole film very well. While he couldn’t be classed as one of the great directors, de Toth was certainly competent and made enough good films to be worthy of more attention. Aside from a number of very enjoyable collaborations with Randolph Scott, he also made the superior Day of the Outlaw and a handful of quality noirs. He was especially good at shooting action and the stalking by night of McCrea’s friend is particularly well done. It’s also worth noting the tough edge he brought to proceedings with a cigar ground into a man’s hand to provoke a gunfight and a savagely brutal beating being some of the highlights. 

While there are plenty of good things to say about Ramrod the film, unfortunately, that not the case with the DVD. The only edition that I’m aware of is the Suevia release from Spain, and it’s pretty poor stuff. The master looks to be taken from an old VHS cassette and all the expected faults are present in the transfer. The image is scratchy, dirty and lacking in definition, and the audio is weak too. Despite that, it remains quite watchable, although there is an especially bad section beginning on the hour mark and continuing for about two minutes. In terms of quality it’s reminiscent of a mid-range PD title. However, as things stand, it’s the only version available - I’m not sure where the rights for this reside but I have a hunch it could be with MGM. On the plus side it can be had for very little money and there are no forced subs on the English track. I think this is a neglected little western with noir undertones that is well worth a look; anything starring McCrea and directed by de Toth deserves that at least. I’d imagine a decent release would go some way towards elevating its status.

Kiss of Death

Posted on January 12th, 2011 in 1940s, Film Noir, Richard Widmark, Henry Hathaway, Victor Mature by Colin

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Stool pigeon, squealer, informer - these words all evoke images of weak, low-life types who are willing to spill it all and damn their friends for personal gain. It’s not easy to portray such people without resorting to stereotypes like the tragic, pitiful dupe, or maybe the moral/political crusader. Kiss of Death (1947) is the tale of a man who happily shops his partners in crime, but he comes across as the hero mainly because his actions are guided by his devotion to his family and not greed or some trite ethical principle.

Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) is a career hood who’s spent his life on the wrong side of the law. The opening voiceover narration establishes the fact that Bianco’s record now precludes him from holding down any meaningful job, and thus limits his choices. When a pre-Christmas jewel robbery goes wrong he finds himself on a downward spiral where his already restricted options will be narrowed even more. Initially, Bianco holds firm to the doctrine of honour among thieves and spurns the approaches of Assistant DA D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy). So he takes the jail time and the criminal kudos that comes with it, choosing to leave things up to his crooked lawyer. It’s only when he hears of the suicide of his wife (who’s never seen incidentally) and the subsequent packing off of his two daughters to an orphanage that he undergoes a change of heart. Both his lawyer’s ineffectiveness and the news of the inappropriate behaviour of his former comrades cause him to reassess his position. Striking a deal with D’Angelo gets Bianco out on parole but that’s not the end of it. The law demands more from him and Bianco finds himself drawn deeper into the DA’s plans. The ultimate goal is to secure the conviction of one Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), a ruthless hoodlum with a psychopathic streak. Although Bianco secures the evidence the trial is a failure and Udo walks. It’s now that the real nightmare begins; Bianco has a new wife and a new identity, and all that will surely be swept away when (not if) Udo tracks him down and exacts his revenge. It’s in this second half of the story that the film shows its true noir credentials and moves away from the early melodramatic gangster movie feel. Bianco’s world shrinks to the point where he is eventually left with only one viable course of action.

A new face emerging from the shadows - Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo.

Kiss of Death is a good movie for many reasons, but over the years it’s come to be remembered mainly for the debut of Richard Widmark. The performance is so intense and memorable that it’s hard to believe Widmark had never been on screen before. The fact that this giggling maniac who delights in shoving a crippled woman to her death down a staircase has featured in so many clips through time has maybe drained some of the shock value away. However, there’s no denying the chilling quality that Widmark brings to every scene he’s in - whether it all came down to the actor’s own nervousness or not he has a kind of electric menace that demands you give him your full attention. In contrast, Victor Mature is like a rabbit caught in the headlights when confronted with this raw aggression. That’s not meant as a criticism of Mature’s performance; his role is that of man trapped by his own past and some poor decisions, and he brings off the mounting sense of isolation, desperation and fear that any man in Bianco’s position must surely experience. In the supporting parts, Donlevy is his usual strutting and brusque self as the Assistant DA who’s not averse to bending the law his way in order to achieve his ends. Coleen Gray, who also provides the voiceover, is the new wife who finds herself thrust into a perilous situation - although she must surely have expected that her life with Bianco would be less than smooth given her knowledge of his past - and she’s sweet and sympathetic in the role. Henry Hathaway’s no nonsense direction makes sure that the action moves along, and neatly avoids the kind of sermonising that could easily derail things. He also blends the extensive location work into proceedings and this does lend a touch of realism.

The US release of Kiss of Death on DVD (although it’s out in the UK too) via Fox’s noir line is a typically strong one, the transfer being crisp and clean throughout. There are some nice extras too: a commentary by James Ursini and Alain Silver, a gallery and the trailer. The movie has points to make about the inadequacy (and possibly the corrupt nature) of law enforcement, and the failings of the penal system. However, this stuff has all been done before and it’s therefore refreshing that the abiding memory one takes away from a viewing is that of Widmark’s sniggering nutjob. I think it’s fair to say that it’s this powerhouse performance that elevates the movie above other noir pictures.