Nevada Smith

Posted on May 24th, 2011 in 1960s, Westerns, Henry Hathaway, Steve McQueen by Colin

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The theme of revenge has always been one of the staples of the western genre and, despite a slightly bloated running time, Nevada Smith (1966) is a fairly standard example of this. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the movie is its focus on a mixed race protagonist. However, while this lends a different slant to the usual quest for vengeance, the casting dilutes it a little and it’s easy to forget the whole racial angle for extended periods, except when the characters on screen make explicit reference to it.

Max Sand (Steve McQueen) is the half-breed son of a white man and a Kiowa woman, and the story opens with him innocently directing three men (Karl Malden, Arthur Kennedy and Martin Landau) who claim acquaintance with his father to the family home. These men aren’t paying any friendly call though and Max realizes this sobering fact too late. By the time he makes his way back home the men have fled, but there’s a horrifying sight left behind for Max to find. In a vain attempt to extort money the father has been cut, burned and shot to death, while the mother has been skinned alive. Mercifully, none of this is shown on screen but the reactions of Max and his subsequent burning to the ground of his home and all that it contains still add up to a powerful scene. With his whole world literally reduced to ashes, he sets out to track down the torturers of his family and kill them. If the casting of McQueen as a half-breed is a bit of a stretch then it’s even less credible to see him as a callow youth with no real world experience. Still, that’s how we’re supposed to take it, and his green foolishness almost ends his quest before he’s even got properly started. It’s his chance encounter with a travelling arms dealer, Jonas Cord (Brian Keith), that turns things around for him. Cord takes the young man under his wing, teaching him the rudiments of gunfighting and giving him some basic education. From here on, the film is divided into three distinct sections, each focusing on how Max (he only adopts the Nevada Smith alias in the final segment) locates his man and goes about his reprisals. The first and third sequences work best, the former for its brevity and the latter for its tension. The middle of the movie (the part dealing with Arthur Kennedy’s comeuppance) is much more problematic though. The way it’s set up - Max having himself jailed to get close to his victim - strains believability in the first place. But the real problem is the way it goes on too long and virtually turns into a separate movie within the main narrative. It slows things down terminally and results in the entire production having a disjointed feel. Such is the draining effect of this sequence that the superior final part has some of its impact lessened by the time we get round to it.

Steve McQueen - Nevada Smith

Nevada Smith is a prequel to The Carpetbaggers, a movie I’ve never seen so I can’t comment on whether it holds up in terms of continuity. Henry Hathaway can usually be counted on to deliver tight, economical movies that rarely outstay their welcome. However, with a filmography as long and varied as his there will inevitably be some that turn out better than others. In this case, I think Hathaway suffered from the episodic nature of the script he had to work with. The narrative ends up bolted together rather than flowing seamlessly from one situation to another. As I already said, the mid section is where it stumbles and the impetus is lost. In fairness, this part does serve to illustrate the development and progression of McQueen’s character. The thing is it’s not actually a weak section on its own; the problem, for me at least, is that it doesn’t quite gel with either the tone or pace of what precedes and follows. Of course Hathaway is aided enormously by having Lucien Ballard shooting the picture for him, the outdoor scenes in particular being beautifully rendered. The miscasting of McQueen is especially noticeable when you consider his age - he was in his mid-thirties, and looked it, and was being asked to play the part of someone at least fifteen years younger. The only saving grace lay in the fact that McQueen had the ability to project a kind of childlike innocence when he wanted. While this cannot entirely paper over the incongruity, it does go some way towards compensating for a major weakness. Karl Malden, Arthur Kennedy and Martin Landau were a fine trio of villains, and there’s a good deal of satisfaction to be derived from seeing them get what’s coming to them. Malden easily has the best role and he does a good job of portraying a man descending into terrified paranoia as a result of the relentless pursuit by his faceless nemesis. The only female role of any substance was handed to Suzanne Pleshette, as the girl who falls for McQueen and aids him in his escape from the swamp ringed prison, and she manages to be both sexy and tragic.

Back when Paramount were still in the business of issuing catalogue titles on DVD it was rare to come across a poor transfer. Nevada Smith is no exception in that respect, the anamorphic scope image on the R1 disc being strong, detailed and colourful. It’s a totally barebones affair though with no extras whatsoever. So, to recap, we have a fairly standard western tale of revenge - and the ultimate futility of it all - that’s reasonably satisfying. Apart from the odd central casting, I feel the movie could have been improved a good deal by a bit of judicious editing to strip away some of the flab in the script. Still, the end product is entertaining enough and I’d give it a qualified recommendation.

Macao

Posted on May 17th, 2011 in 1950s, Film Noir, Josef von Sternberg, Robert Mitchum by Colin

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If there were such a term as noir-lite then Macao (1952) would have to feature as a prominent example. Taking its lead from the likes of The Big Steal and, more especially, His Kind of Woman, the movie uses some standard characters and situations but drops the harder-edged cynicism and fatalism that one normally expects to find. As a result, we wind up getting a moderately entertaining picture that passes the time but never delivers the kind of sickening gut punch a film noir ought to. The chaotic nature of the production probably contributed significantly to the less than satisfactory final product. However, there are casting issues involved too, but more on that later.

Exotic settings have long been a favourite of Hollywood movies, and the Orient has a special flavour and mystique of its own. Macao, the Portuguese colony, had the kind of murky reputation that suits the world of noir down to the ground. The story revolves around the arrival of three strangers - Nick Cochran (Robert Mitchum), Julie Benson (Jane Russell) and Lawrence C Trumble (William Bendix) - in this corrupt and largely lawless locale. What’s not clear is the reason for these individuals turning up; Julie says she’s looking for a job as a singer, Trumble says he’s a salesman, and Cochran says he’s just hoping to turn a buck whatever way he can. Regardless of what they say, it’s soon apparent that one or more of this ill-matched trio is out to bring down local underworld and gambling kingpin Vince Halloran (Brad Dexter). He’s wanted by Interpol but can’t be touched as long as he remains within Macao’s three mile limit; so a plot involving stolen diamonds is cooked up to appeal to his avaricious nature and lure him far enough out for the authorities to nab him. At the heart of the story is the dynamic between Cochran and Julie - he helps her out of a tight spot and she repays him by lifting his wallet, he gets threatened with deportation and she bails him out, and so on. This cagey romance runs parallel to the business with Halloran, and it seems at times like there are two different movies fighting for dominance. In the end it’s the lighter elements that prevail and the more sinister aspects are only dealt with during the climax. Generally, it’s a schizophrenic kind of picture that fails to deliver adequately through its lack of decisiveness. There are a number of effective scenes that, taken individually, prove satisfying either for their smart-ass comedic dialogue or their tense stylishness. However, they sit uncomfortably side by side and the shift of emphasis is a clumsy affair.

Robert Mitchum, unsure of which way to turn in Macao.

It’s rarely good news when a film experiences a change of director during production, and the further along it is when the switch takes place the greater the damage is likely to be. Josef von Sternberg had already shot a significant amount of the script when on set disagreements led to his departure and replacement by Nicholas Ray. The credits show von Sternberg as the director but it’s hard to be sure how much of the finished movie is down to him; Cochran’s escape from Halloran’s clutches and subsequent pursuit through the docks at night do seem to carry his stamp though. That’s easily the most visually impressive sequence in the whole movie, as Cochran stumbles and slips through a set draped with trawler nets that resemble some massive spider web that’s been spun across the waterfront to ensnare him. Additionally, the scenes in Halloran’s gambling house hark back to von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture, but never achieve anything like the intoxicating decadence of the earlier film. On top of all the other turmoil, the script was undergoing constant revision and being written on the fly, with Mitchum apparently contributing. Mitchum and Russell were essentially playing to type and their chemistry is a large part of what ensures Macao remains watchable. I enjoy seeing William Bendix in anything but he overdoes the mugging in this one and his part suffers as a result. A bigger problem with the casting though concerns Brad Dexter and Gloria Grahame: Dexter is simply too wooden and passive to convince as the threatening figure he’s supposed to be, and Grahame is criminally wasted in an underwritten role that she reportedly didn’t want to play in the first place.

The R1 DVD of Macao from Warners is a good one that is sharp and has strong contrast in the crucial night scenes. If the film itself is a weak one then the disc extras go some way towards making up for that. There’s a nice commentary track with Eddie Muller, Jane Russell and Stanley Rubin. Also, we get a half hour of TCM Private Screenings with Russell and a very ill Mitchum chatting to Robert Osborne. I couldn’t recommend the movie to anyone just getting into film noir as it’s too watered down to be in any way representative. While it’s passably entertaining, it’s realistically more likely to appeal to Mitchum/Russell/von Sternberg (delete as appropriate) completists.

Man in the Shadow

Posted on May 10th, 2011 in 1950s, Westerns, Orson Welles, Jeff Chandler, Jack Arnold by Colin

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Another modern western, and another message film. Man in the Shadow (1957) treads a similar path to Bad Day at Black Rock by having a lone individual take a stand against a racially motivated murder. The main difference is that this time the hero is not an outsider who’s swooped down on an alien world seeking justice. In this movie our protagonist is a familiar face in his small community but whose sense of personal and professional honour bring him into direct conflict with with those he’s known all his life.

Ben Sadler (Jeff Chandler) is the sheriff of a sleepy western town. The routine and mundane nature of his job is highlighted early on when he opens up the cells to release the town drunk who’s been sleeping off a heavy one. He hands him a stern warning, which we know is really only for show, and then bids the old timer good day. That’s the kind of town we’re in - one where crime is generally confined to manageable, petty affairs that tend not to represent a major threat to the community. Within moments however, a much more serious matter is to be laid before Sadler, one which is not only reprehensible in itself but also, as a result of what any investigation will entail, poses a threat to the finances and, by extension, the very viability of this small backwater. Sitting huddled and almost forgotten in the office is an old Mexican with a story to tell that’s about to present the sheriff with a moral and professional dilemma. The old man has witnessed the murder of a young friend by two cowboys at a nearby ranch. He doesn’t really expect anyone to take his tale seriously, partly because of his lowly immigrant status and partly due to the identity of his employer. Virgil Renchler (Orson Welles) is a big man, both physically and financially, and his ranch is the life blood of the town. Without the patronage of his sprawling ranch the businesses would quickly wither and even the railroad stop might fall into disuse. Sadler is aware of the clout wielded by Renchler but, unlike his slovenly and skulking deputy, he’s also conscious of his duties as the representative of the law. So, it’s with some reluctance that he gives his word to the old man and begins to tentatively look into the allegations. Renchler, though, is a throwback to the old cattle barons, a man whose self-sufficiency and power has led him to believe in his own infallibility. When he tells Sadler that he has no business asking questions of him and dismisses the killing as nothing more than an insignificance, the sheriff’s indignation is aroused. Thus we have one of those perennial western themes, the clash between the laws of civilization and the moneyed big shots who see themselves as being above such naive concerns. The thing is though that Sadler isn’t merely up against a powerful rancher, the influence and fear that Renchler inspires in the country is such that virtually the entire population of the town turns against their lawman. Sadler’s only allies are Renchler’s disgruntled daughter, Skippy (Colleen Miller), and the Italian immigrant barber - not exactly a pair of heavy hitters. Still, in spite of the enmity of his former friends, an attempt on his life and a public humiliation, Sadler presses ahead with the investigation that nobody wants.

Orson Welles - Man in the Shadow.

Although the racism implicit in the murder is acknowledged and explored, that’s not the real issue of the movie. The primary concern is the corrupting influence of business and how entire communities can be effectively blackmailed into abandoning their awareness of right and wrong for the sake of financial gain. While this moral issue remains at the forefront throughout, Jack Arnold’s direction ensures that it’s conveyed dramatically rather than by means of noble speeches and the like. The pace is brisk and the development direct so there’s not much room for complex characterisation; we know where we stand as regards the principals right from the beginning and that doesn’t change much by the close. Welles does manage to elicit some slight sympathy as the man whose blustering independence has painted himself into a corner. That’s one of the things about Welles as an actor - even when he played villains it was hard not to feel a little for him. He does lay it on a little thick at times, but complaining about Welles’ tendency to ham it up is akin to decrying John Wayne for his machismo - it’s part of the package and you know that when you go in. Jeff Chandler is pretty good too as the isolated sheriff who knows full well that he’s probably biting off more than he can chew, but whose own personal code precludes his backing down. The main weakness lies in the script, not that it’s poorly executed but that it’s themes are too familiar. There’s nothing especially new or groundbreaking in the plot and although it’s carried off professionally there is a certain unavoidable staleness to it all.

Man in the Shadow is available on DVD from a number of sources: from Germany, France and a recent DVD-R from Universal in the US. I have the German release from Koch Media and it’s a very nice presentation. The movie is in anamorphic scope with very crisp black and white images and obviously came from a clean, strong print. There are no forced subtitles on the English track and there are some attractive extras too. Apart from the trailer and gallery, there’s a 14 minute interview with Jack Arnold where he talks about his memories of working within the studio system and the changes in filmmaking he observed down the years. The movie is an entertaining and pacy one that has a point to make. I found the performances and direction all up to scratch, and the only problem was the lack of originality in the story. Still, it’s not a bad way to spend an hour and a quarter or so - and anything that involves Orson Welles’ participation has to be considered worthwhile.

Bad Day at Black Rock

Posted on May 1st, 2011 in 1950s, Westerns, John Sturges, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Spencer Tracy by Colin

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Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) is what’s termed a modern western. Of course, from a strictly purist point of view, the western really ought to take place within a narrow time period and location. This film is certainly set in the correct location - the arid southwest - but the events take place not in the late nineteenth century, but immediately after the end of WWII. Still, even if the trappings belong to a later era, the basic themes of the classic western are present: a simple tale of good vs evil wherein a lone, righteous figure grapples with the hostility of both the environment and his fellow men. Despite the apparently straightforward nature of the plot, the film is a powerful one that tackles at least two major themes; one of which is very obviously presented, the other is less explicit and takes something of a back seat but it’s there all the same.

The opening is aggressive and dramatic, with a mean-looking black engine, hauling blood red carriages, hurtling through the desert to the accompaniment of Andre Previn’s ominous score. As this impressive and relentless juggernaut grinds to a halt outside the tiny, desolate town of Black Rock, it’s as clear to the viewer as it is to the awestruck locals (the train hasn’t stopped there in four years) that something important is about to happen. The figure that alights is an incongruous one, a middle-aged man with a stiff arm, clad in an austere, black business suit. He could be a businessman, a government man, a gangster - what he’s not is local. This man is John J Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), and the reactions provoked by his unexpected arrival progress from incredulity to suspicion and finally open hostility. Everybody he encounters is consumed with curiosity regarding his errand in their midst. However, this is not the normal sense of wonder that would occur in any small, isolated community when its members are confronted with the presence of a stranger. There’s fear in the air, fear of the man and what he might discover. As Macreedy finds himself repeatedly stonewalled when requesting even the most basic kind of assistance, he’s also on the receiving end of questions from the locals. But these questions have an edge, they’re of the cagey variety where the asker doesn’t really want to know the answer. What all this means is that fear has a companion in Black Rock - guilt. A great sin has been committed in this community and Macreedy has descended upon the residents like some instrument of judgement or retribution. It’s soon made apparent exactly what has happened, a Japanese farmer has died in mysterious circumstances, and who bears the responsibility. Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) is the big man around town, and the one Macreedy must deal with. Perhaps more important than the violent climax is the verbal face-off between these two men outside the gas station. This scene highlights the two principal themes in the movie: the first is the ugly matter of racism, the second is the nature of the west itself. Of the two, I find the latter more interesting, mainly because it’s approached in a much more subtle manner. When Smith points out that suspicion of the unfamiliar is just a natural throwback to the old days, Macreedy observes that he always thought the old west was characterised by hospitality. And there’s the point, that the myth of the old west was subverted through time into the kind of small-minded defensiveness represented by Black Rock. To Smith, this new west has been neglected and forgotten, of interest only to academics or businessmen seeking a quick buck. Although it’s never explicitly stated, the inference is that the responsibility for the death of an innocent Japanese doesn’t rest merely on the shoulders of the bunch of ignorant rednecks who dealt the final blow. The suggestion is that these people have been bypassed by progress (the train that never stops) and abandoned to their own prejudices - an embarrassing by-product of the apathy in wider society.

Two big men - Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan in Bad Day at Black Rock.

This is another of John Sturges’ tightly-paced, economical works, stripped down to the basics and direct. From the moment the train thunders into view at the beginning, until the circle is completed eighty minutes later with the same locomotive making another rare stop at Black Rock, the pace never slackens. Additionally, Sturges’s camera uses the wide lens to excellent effect, the dearth of close-ups serves to keep the characters at a distance and accentuates the isolation of both them and the setting. Despite the high proportion of outdoor shots, there’s still a claustrophobic atmosphere about the whole thing. It’s as though the frontier has shrunk and this western drama is played out within the stifling confines of a town that has ceased to look outwards and has turned its gaze in upon itself. The only time a sense of space is apparent is during the credits sequence, and when Macreedy drives out to the ruins of the Japanese property - the railroad and a murdered foreigner representing the openness that was once the mark of the west. Besides the visuals, this is also a film of words, and although it’s dialogue heavy there’s a snap and colour to the lines that make them instantly memorable. I’ve seen some criticism of Andre Previn’s score, citing its intrusiveness, but I feel that the urgent, driving quality of the music is the ideal accompaniment for the threatening uncertainty that unfolds on screen.

Spencer Tracy’s naturalistic style of acting was greatly admired at one time, but the rise of the method saw it fall out of favour and opinions are likely to remain divided to this day. Personally, I like it; there’s always the feeling that you’re watching a real person reacting in much the same way you might do yourself to the circumstances. The passage of time, and drinking, weathered his features and the bristling aggression that he displayed as a younger man gave way to middle-aged gravitas. Tracy could be seen as the face of moral America, not in a narrow, disapproving or prudish sense, rather the slightly imperfect conscience of everyman. As such, he was ideally cast as John J Macreedy - a man who’s trying to do one last decent thing before bowing out of life. There’s a certain ambiguity about what he means by that of course, I’ve seen it claimed that the character had been contemplating taking his own life until the challenge of exposing the rotten little secret of Black Rock reawakened his appetite. I’ve also come across the suggestion that Macreedy could be taken for a supernatural figure, the fact that Smith’s detective can find no evidence of his existence is the reasoning behind this. It’s an interesting idea, reinforcing the notion of his being the embodiment of a higher justice, but I’m not convinced that it’s actually the case. As Macreedy’s chief opponent, Robert Ryan represents a kind of distorted reflection - another craggy individual, but one whose motives are far from admirable. If Tracy stands for the kind of fundamentally right man we’d like to be, then Ryan is the total antithesis; a bullying, bigoted braggart who’s become twisted by his own inadequacy and a country that has rejected him on every level. Reno Smith is a man to be both pitied and despised in equal measure, and Ryan nailed that quality. Caught somewhere in the middle, like most ordinary people I suppose, are the supporting players: Walter Brennan’s Doc (I feel for you, but I’m consumed with apathy) and Dean Jagger’s sheriff might be jaded but still retain some ethical sense, while Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine are suitably menacing as the loutish sidekicks interested only in doing their master’s bidding. The latter pair refer to themselves as cowboys but there’s no sign anywhere of any ranching taking place - Black Rock isn’t so much a one horse town as a no horse town.

The R1 DVD from Warner Brothers has Bad Day at Black Rock looking great. The anamorphic scope transfer is clean and crisp, and the colours are rich and strong. The extras are a commentary track by Dana Polan and the trailer for the movie - it’s not what you’d call a stacked edition but there’s no reason for complaint either. The film is a very strong effort from John Sturges, both entertainingly tense and thought provoking. He did some of his best work through the 50s and this is right up near the top - a definite and easy recommendation.