The Ox-Bow Incident

Posted on June 28th, 2011 in 1940s, Westerns, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, William Wellman, Dana Andrews by Colin

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The western is genre that often gets a raw deal in the image stakes. And it’s not just a matter of waning box-office popularity in recent times. It’s rarely afforded the respect that other genres seem to court so easily and instead finds itself weighed down by the notion that it’s somehow unsophisticated. The term oater is applied, I’ve used it myself, in an affectionate way, yet it carries a certain air of condescension when you stop and think about it too. I guess the stereotype of uncouth figures riding horses, firing guns and chasing Indians is such a strong one that it’s managed to sideline the genre in the minds of many people. The paradox is that the western is actually one of the richest forms of cinema around. Leaving aside the frequently breathtaking visuals, the setting offers the opportunity to tell an almost unlimited range of stories and explore as many themes as it’s possible to imagine. The vast geographical expanses and the absence (or at best the bare rudiments) of civilization create a kind of nearly blank canvas onto which a skilled filmmaker can paint, with both bold and subtle strokes, whatever he likes. William Wellman was certainly highly skilled and his westerns are never less than interesting, and usually challenging too. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) is a powerful and memorable piece of work that stays with you and is one of those films that proves the western is capable of being not only an entertainment but an intellectual stimulant as well.

The plot is a simple one and it’s that lack of complexity in the storytelling that’s one of its greatest strengths. The film has a moral point to impart and too much narrative trickery would only be a distraction and water down the central message. Events begin to unfold in a little backwater settlement where the neighbouring ranchers have been struggling with the perennial problem of cattle rustling. When a youngster comes racing into town to breathlessly announce that one of their own has been apparently murdered and his livestock taken a tragic chain reaction is set in motion. The jaded and bitter populace experience disbelief and outrage and are teetering on the edge, poised to ride out and hunt down like animals the alleged killers of their friend. For a brief moment, it looks like reason and decency may prevail as the aged storekeeper Davies (Harry Davenport) appeals to their better nature. But this is not to be - ex-soldier Tetley (Frank Conroy) soon turns the townsfolk back to their base instincts, and a rag-tag posse is formed. Not wanting to draw the ire of the town upon themselves, two cowboys, Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan), reluctantly join the eager hunting party. It’s not long before the posse cut the trail of three men (Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn and Francis Ford) who seem to fit the bill of the murderers. From this point on the movie becomes a kind of ethical struggle between the ineffectual Davies and the implacable Tetley for the souls of the posse members, with the fate of the three captives hanging in the balance.

Trapped in a moral no man's land - Henry Fonda in The Ox-Bow Incident.

The Ox-Bow Incident is based on the novel of the same name by Walt Van Tilburg Clark and, although it’s been quite a few years since I read the book, I recall it as being a pretty faithful adaptation. Wellman’s direction captures the heavy, moody and ultimately tragic tone of the novel very well. There aren’t many true exterior scenes, most of the film seeming to have been shot on sets, and this (along with the high contrast photography) helps to pile on the sense of claustrophobia and doom. While the outcome is fairly predictable, the director still maintains the tension and, crucially, that isn’t lost even with repeated viewings. In fairness, a lot of that comes down to the performances too; Dana Andrews, as the leader of the suspected murderers, was billed below Henry Fonda but his work plays a large part in the success of the movie. His initial disbelief and growing desperation at the nightmare situation he finds himself in is built steadily. He did a fine job of conveying an awkward mix of fear and nobility that positively demands the sympathy of the viewer. In a sense, Fonda plays something of a supporting role in this one, only taking centre stage at a few points. Perhaps his best moment is in the saloon at the end when he reads Andrews’ letter to his illiterate friend. The letter itself is a powerful and emotive one that expertly outlines the author’s twinned concepts of justice and conscience. Fonda’s delivery of the words, as Wellman shot him in extreme close-up - partly obscured at first and then full face - is perfectly timed and enunciated to maximise their impact. However, for long stretches, he’s portraying the confused man in the middle, caught between the opposing ideals of Tetley and Davies. It’s this conflict that’s at the heart of the picture: how reasonable and civilized men can be browbeaten into submission, how the cult of personality can sway the masses and turn them into an unthinking mob, bereft of ethics and robbed of conscience. It’s both an indictment of the failings of the law - the sheriff has left town, the judge is a procrastinator, and the deputy is little more than a barbarian - and a warning that that same law is all we have to prevent our descent into inhumanity.

The R1 DVD of The Ox-Bow Incident from Fox is an excellent presentation of the film; there’s hardly any damage to be seen, the detail level is fine, and the crisp image has the kind of strong contrast necessary for this type of movie. There’s also a fine selection of extras: a commentary track by William Wellman Jr and Dick Eulain, a biography of Fonda, and a gallery  of images. This title is due for a Blu-ray release by Koch Media in Germany in August. Seeing as the extras are to be replicated it’s reasonable to expect that the same film elements will be used, therefore a first class transfer should be on the cards. As I said in the intro, The Ox-Bow Incident is a good example of a thinking man’s western, yet for all that, it never loses sight of the fact that it has to entertain and grip the viewer too. A superb film.

Pickup on South Street

Posted on June 19th, 2011 in 1950s, Film Noir, Richard Widmark, Sam Fuller by Colin

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Movies that focus on the post-war obsession with the Red Scare can be a bit trying to watch with modern eyes. The forced patriotism and tendency towards speech-making rarely add up to a satisfying viewing experience. But on occasion, they can work and rise above the poisonous politics of the time to present a genuinely good film. Pickup on South Street (1953) is an excellent example - Sam Fuller’s commie baiting has a cynical, sardonic edge that makes it almost refreshingly subversive, especially given the climate in which it was produced.

Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) is a small time grifter, a pickpocket back plying his trade on the subway just after being released from prison. He’s also a three time loser (one more conviction and he gets life) and may have taken a step too far this time. In one of the most erotically charged pieces of larceny committed to film, he eases a wallet out of the purse of a girl in a crowded carriage. The girl, Candy (Jean Peters), unfortunately happens to be under observation by the FBI, who want to trace the man she’s to deliver the contents of the wallet to. McCoy’s light-fingered work leaves everyone in a spot: Candy can’t make the drop and has to break the bad news to her communist boyfriend, the Feds have had the perfect sting snatched away from them, and McCoy finds himself with a piece of microfilm that both the law and the reds are prepared to nail him to get. The result is that McCoy winds up walking an especially precarious tightrope, holding the cops at arm’s length while he attempts to extort $25,000 from the communists. All the while, Candy is asked to use her ample charms to retrieve the coveted microfilm one way or another. In the end, McCoy does what the Feds want and eventually gives up both the film and the spy ring. What distinguishes this movie from the standard anti-communist fare of the time though is the attitude and motivation of McCoy throughout. He quite literally sneers at the earnest appeals to his patriotism that the FBI man naively hopes will sway him. When he does finally look beyond narrow self-interest it’s not because he just thought about the flag and suddenly felt all mushy inside, it’s because he has witnessed the brutality of the people he’s trying to bargain with and owes a debt of loyalty and gratitude to friends. So, while McCoy ultimately “does the right thing”, his own personal integrity and disdain for authority remain more or less intact.

Jean Peters - Pickup on South Street

Pickup on South Street represents Sam Fuller at or near his best; the stripped down plot, the cheap, hard-boiled idiom of the dialogue that snaps like a whip, and the pulp trashiness of the characters all combine with the director’s gut-punching bluntness to deliver eighty minutes of great cinema. Some of the best scenes in the movie take place in McCoy’s waterfront shack, where Joe MacDonald’s camera makes the most of the shadows and confined space to create mood and atmosphere. Of particular note is the sequence when McCoy returns to find Candy searching the place by torchlight. Not even suspecting that it’s a woman, he slugs the half seen figure full on the jaw and lays her out, then casually brings her to by pouring his river chilled beer over her. What follows is a sexy and darkly romantic scene, where McCoy gently massages Candy’s bruised face as the two of them draw ever closer, and the camera moves in for an increasingly tight close-up. In a completely different but equally effective scene, Fuller and MacDonald have the villain holed up in the smallest, darkest space imaginable - a dumb waiter stalled between floors as the Feds peer through the openings above and below - and once again use the tight framing to great effect.

Pickup on South Street was the first of two movies Richard Widmark would make with Sam Fuller (the other was the following year’s Hell and High Water - a glossier, more cartoonish and less interesting work) and it provided him with one of his better roles. He’d moved on from playing out and out villains and seemed to enjoy the anti-heroic status of the part. Skip McCoy is an unapologetic thief, with a streak of mild sadism too, who revels in his life outside the law and normal society. Widmark was probably the ideal choice as a character whose default reaction to noble ideals and patriotic fervour was a curled lip and stinging sarcasm. As the foil, and romantic interest, for this cocky and contemptuous figure, Jean Peters was another fine piece of casting. As Candy, she exudes a kind of earthy sexuality that’s incredibly attractive in a cheap, slightly sleazy way. It’s never made exactly clear what her background is, but there are allusions to a tawdry past that she’s trying to live down. Also, the fact that she endures fairly rough treatment at the hands of McCoy (including a full-on punch in the face) and a bad beating from her boyfriend without a whimper of self pity indicates that she’s familiar with the unsavoury side of life. While these two dominate the film’s narrative, the show is damned near stolen every time Thelma Ritter’s Moe makes an appearance. Her world weary stoolie, who dreams only of scraping together enough cash to ensure she avoids a pauper’s funeral, is highly memorable. Aside from the fatalism and melancholy of her character, she draws a huge amount of sympathy from the viewer just by appearing plainly human. As such, it’s no surprise that it’s the fate of Moe which affects McCoy deeply enough to take decisive action. The main villain is Candy’s boyfriend, played by Richard Kiley. He’s the stuff of stereotypes, all sweaty and gutless, but the movie needs such a figure to act as the focus for the audience’s resentment.

The UK DVD from Optimum offers a very strong transfer of the film. It’s clean, sharp and has good contrast. Unfortunately, there are absolutely no extras included on the disc. In terms of supplementary material, the US Criterion release is clearly the way to go. However, if you just want to see the film itself given a fine presentation then it’s hard to beat the Optimum release - especially if you take the difference in pricing into account. Pickup on South Street remains one of the best examples of Sam Fuller’s talents, a first rate film noir where he never allows the political backdrop of the tale to bog down or derail things. In fact, the picture was initially released in France in a dubbed version where all references to the red spy ring were excised in favour of a storyline involving narcotics - which goes to show that the core narrative is strong enough to stand alternative interpretations being welded on. An excellent movie all round.

Black Angel

Posted on June 14th, 2011 in 1940s, Film Noir, Peter Lorre by Colin

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Time for another neglected and half-forgotten gem, one of those movies that seem to slip beneath the radar of even the most ardent movie buffs. Black Angel (1946) is a great little film noir that doesn’t get a lot of attention but really delivers the kind of perversely satisfying payoff that the genre is noted for. There are plenty of familiar noir names in the cast, but none of them are or were exactly “stars” and the director was a man who spent his time on B programmers, so that may go some way towards explaining the relative obscurity of the film.

The opening is very self-consciously stylised, showing a lone figure on the sidewalk before panning up an artificial looking building exterior and in through the window to establish an overhead shot of a woman in her bedroom. The woman, Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling), is a singer and, as we soon learn, a blackmailer. While she prowls her apartment waiting for a caller to arrive, the man on the street below is revealed to be songwriter and pianist Martin Blair (Dan Duryea), the estranged husband who still carries a torch and hopes to see her since it’s their anniversary. Although the lovesick Blair gets stiff armed by the concierge, on his wife’s orders, the audience gets to witness two different men entering the building to see Miss Marlowe. One is night club owner Marko (Peter Lorre), and the other is a mark called Kirk Bennett (John Phillips). It’s the latter who discovers the strangled body of Marlowe and, despite protestations of innocence, is arrested, tried and sentenced to the gas chamber for her murder. As viewers, we know that Bennett is innocent - we can’t be positive who the murderer was but suspicion casts a very long shadow over Marko. The rest of the movie is essentially a race to try and nail the true culprit before the wrong man is executed. Blair and Bennett’s wife, Catherine (June Vincent), form an alliance to track down the clues the police have either missed or ignored in the course of the initial investigation. This curiously matched duo naturally focus their attention on the sinister Marko but, as the old saying goes, there’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip, and the outcome is far from certain.

Falling off the wagon - Dan Duryea in Black Angel

Director Roy William Neill is hardly a household name, and he’s probably best known for helming some of the better entries in the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes series for Universal. In those movies he showed a real talent for conveying atmosphere and suspense on a budget. He brought that same sense of dark foreboding to Black Angel, which unfortunately proved to be his last picture, and delivered a pacy and stylish thriller. The script derives from a Cornell Woolrich story and has that twisted, nightmarish quality that characterised his work. In a rare opportunity to take on the lead role, Dan Duryea excels as the down and out loser who looks like he’s been given a second chance in life and grasps it, only to see his dreams slide away. Duryea was always a first rate villain but here he shows he had more range when necessary, and he creates a character in Martin Blair who’s actually quite touching and affecting. June Vincent, as the loyal wife, is the principal female lead but it’s such a stock role, and one devoid of anything in the way of complexity, that she fails to make much of an impression. The same can’t be said of Constance Dowling though - despite having her character killed off right at the beginning, the spectre of this striking looking woman haunts the rest of the film. Peter Lorre isn’t asked to do anything spectacular as Marko except play his standard variation on the slimy underworld type. Still, he had a nice line in menace that few could rival and he’s quite effective as the chief suspect. The supporting cast is rounded out by veteran Wallace Ford, as Blair’s friend, and a very restrained Broderick Crawford as the dubious detective.

Universal’s R1 DVD of Black Angel presents the film quite well. The transfer’s not exactly pristine but there’s no major problems either and it’s nice and sharp. The only extra on the disc is a trailer for the movie. More than one film noir has been let down by a weak or contrived ending, but this picture finishes up with a real kick in the guts that ensures none of the power is diminished. Don’t let the lesser known credentials put you off, this is a good one.

Ulzana’s Raid

Posted on June 6th, 2011 in 1970s, Westerns, Robert Aldrich, Burt Lancaster by Colin

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By the 1970s revisionism had hit the western in a big way; it had started the previous decade of course, but the social upheval of the period brought it fully to the fore in those last painful days of the Vietnam War. Conflict and domestic unrest have a way of drawing a nation’s gaze inward and it’s hardly surprising that the most iconic cultural markers are the ones upon which attention is most strongly fixed. Such was the case with the western, that most readily identifiable symbol of America’s heritage, and the brutal campaigns against the Indians provided a rich background to use as a parallel for a contemporary war. Ulzana’s Raid (1972) is frequently cited as an allegory for US involvement in South East Asia, and it’s hard to argue with that - inexperienced soldiers battling a largely faceless foe in hostile and unforgiving territory, exposing strengths and weaknesses, prejudices and virtues in the process.

The tale concerns the breakout by a band of Apache led by Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez) from the reservation, and their subsequent rampage across Arizona. In response, the army sends out a detachment under the command of a green officer, Lieutenant DeBuin (Bruce Davison), with orders to capture or kill the fugitives. DeBuin is to be aided in his task by two scouts, an Apache, Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke), and a white veteran, McIntosh (Burt Lancaster). DeBuin’s initial approach, fuelled by the fact that his father is a clergyman, is an almost evangelical one, wherein he views the Apache as a misguided and misunderstood people who need to be coaxed back to the bosom of white civilisation. The scouts, McIntosh in particular, have no illusions on this score though - to them the runaway Apache are no aspiring white men who have strayed from the flock, they are a dangerous and cunning enemy worthy of both fear and respect. As DeBuin’s troop follow Ulzana’s blood-soaked trail, encountering one horrific atrocity after another, the young lieutenant sees his faith in the essential goodness of humanity challenged. His reactions range from shock, leading him to question a bemused Ke-Ni-Tay about the motivation for such cruelty, to a kind of outraged vindictiveness as he demands his Apache scout bury the mutilated remains of yet another butchered settler. Throughout all this McIntosh remains dryly philosophical, guiding his young charge as best he can and providing the voice of reason when hate and revenge threaten to displace logical action. What we end up with is an examination of white America’s attempts to come to terms with an adversary whose psychology and beliefs are so alien and incomprehensible that they defy conventional means of tackling them. In the end, it’s only by worming his way into Ulzana’s thought processes that McIntosh is able map out a way to defeat him, although the ultimate irony is that it’s another Apache, and not all the might and firepower of the army, that finally brings closure.

Boxed in - Burt Lancaster in Ulzana's Raid.

I think Ulzana’s Raid might just be Robert Aldrich’s best movie, blending action and harsh visuals perfectly. The cruel and pitiless Arizona and Nevada landscapes are a fitting backdrop for the brutal events that play out on the screen. There’s barely an interior shot in the whole picture, the bulk of it taking place amid the dust, rocks and canyons. Where he was a little coy about trumpeting his politics in earlier works here he indulges in a kind of liberal realism that never patronises or descends into sentiment. There’s clearly sympathy for the deprivation that has driven Ulzana and his band off the reservation in search of the spiritual power they crave, but at no point does Aldrich allow the Apache to be seen as the kind of dippy mystics that is the stuff of caricature. He never shies away from depicting the merciless nature of Ulzana and his men, but nor does he seek to cover it up in politically correct excuses - to paraphrase both McIntosh and Ke-Ni-Tay, the Apache are what they are and that’s how it’s always been. The main focus though is on how the young lieutenant and his men cope with the reality of fighting an enemy that they can neither seem to catch nor even understand. Bruce Davison had suitably innocent and freshly-scrubbed features to portray a man about to have all his high-minded illusions shattered. He matures nicely as the story progresses and McIntosh’s wisdom gradually sinks in. As the grizzled old scout, Lancaster dominates the movie with his wry observations helping to ground it all. He displays a sense of fatalism that befits a man whose years of living on the frontier have exposed him to the brutal nature of men in general. Richard Jaeckel also deserves a mention for his sergeant who’s been through the wars and learnt that while officers need to be obeyed and respected their judgement is not always to be trusted.

Universal’s UK DVD of Ulzana’s Raid presents the film at about 1.78:1 anamorphic. The disc contains no extra features at all, but the movie itself looks very handsome with good detail, sharpness and colour. I should mention that the UK version has a number of mandatory BBFC cuts for horsefalls - these don’t amount to much in terms of time but they do result in slightly jarring editing when they occur. As far as I know, the continental European versions do not have any of those cuts present. As I said, this is probably Aldrich’s best work and it makes for a western that’s both intelligent and engrossing. It casts a cool eye on the old west that refreshingly avoids being either judgemental or romantic - the viewer is expected to be enough of an adult to make up his or her own mind without being led by the nose. Highly recommended.