The Leopard Man

Posted on October 26th, 2011 in 1940s, Jacques Tourneur by Colin

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Seeing as Halloween is only a matter of days away I thought I’d feature something with a seasonal flavour to mark the occasion. A casual glance would suggest that The Leopard Man (1943) ought to be a slice of classic horror. Bearing in mind the title, and the fact it was produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur, one might expect to get another anthropomorphic chiller along the lines of Cat People. However, it’s the source material, a story by Cornell Woolrich, that dictates the kind of movie that’s ultimately delivered. Woolrich wasn’t a horror writer, though his darkly fatalistic tales do border on the macabre at times, instead he concentrated on bleak and pessimistic crime stories. So, the combination of director, producer and writer here results in a moody crime picture that bears the trappings, atmosphere and feel of a horror movie.

This compact thriller takes place in a border town in New Mexico and, like a good deal of Woolrich’s material, sees a tragic train of events set in motion by a foolish mishap. In this case the event in question is brought about when a night club performer, Kiki (Jean Brooks), goes along with the suggestion of her manager/publicist, Jerry Manning (Dennis O’Keefe), that she should make a dramatic entrance with a black leopard on a leash. The idea is to draw the spotlight and simultaneously upstage her rival, flamenco dancer Clo-Clo (Margo). Not a bad plan, as far as it goes. The trouble arises when Clo-Clo, in a fit of pique, startles the beast with the clacking of her castanets, causing it to bolt and and slip away into the shadowy streets of the town. This leads to one of the most celebrated sequences in producer Lewton’s movies. A young girl, a bit of a dreamer and slacker if the truth be known, is sent on a shopping errand by an impatient and exasperated mother. The girl tries to beg off, citing her fear of the wild animal roaming the surrounding countryside, but the mother is having none of it. To her, her daughter has too fanciful an imagination and too little sense of responsibility. The girl’s trip to the only store open at such a late hour, and more especially the return, is an exercise in how to draw tension tight through the use of suggestion and shadowy visuals. What makes this succeed is the fact that the growing panic and dread of the girl match perfectly what the viewers feel as we accompany her on her journey. The tragic outcome, playing on the old fable of the boy who cried wolf, is all the more effective as a result of our experiencing the same emotions as the girl. Suddenly, this sleepy backwater is transformed into a community stalked by fear and suspicion as the apparent victims of the escaped cat start to mount up. As I said in the introduction, this is not a real horror movie in the true sense of the word. There is nothing of the supernatural involved, unless you count Isabel Jewell’s gypsy fortune teller, yet the sense of menace is palpable throughout.

Suspicion and threatening shadows - Jean Brooks in The Leopard Man.

In all honesty, the plot of The Leopard Man is fairly unremarkable, and the mystery story it’s built around isn’t so difficult to figure out. The strength of the movie derives from the mood evoked by the tale, and maybe more importantly, the way Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur go about presenting it. What they put on screen is every bit as morbid as the best of Poe. Lewton and Tourneur’s shadowy, expressionistic style play a significant part in creating the sense of doom and fatalism that seems to dog the characters. The flamenco dancer played by Margo is superficially in love with life, and her jaunty sashaying through the town streets, castanets always at the ready, appears to reinforce this. Yet, her thoughts are never far from darker matters, borne out by her near obsessive need to consult the fortune teller at every opportunity, despite the latter’s repeated discovery of death in the cards. Aside from the sequence with the girl on her late night errand that I already referred to, there are two other especially noteworthy passages. The first involves a lovelorn girl who visits a cemetary on her birthday to keep a date with her beau. Surely it’s only in a Lewton film where two youthful lovers would think it appropriate to pick a graveyard as the backdrop for a romantic assignation. This scene heightens the melancholic, oneiric quality that permeates the movie and comes close to the idea of horror being essentially a fairy tale for adults. The second takes place during the climax, where the real killer is pursued and finally cornered amid the hooded and solemn members of an historical/religious procession. All of these sequences serve as something of a definition of the characteristics of horror moviemaking. Cinematic horror is not so much about gore or actually scaring the audience - that has a limited, juvenile impact which rarely stands the test of time - as instilling a sense of dread and foreboding. After all, it’s the moody atmospheric stuff that lingers in the memory long after the cheaper shocks have worn off or been superseded by something more daring.

In the US Val Lewton collection form Warners The Leopard Man shares space on a disc with The Ghost Ship. The film has a reasonably good transfer, although there are certainly a number of speckles and scratches on show. The image is acceptably sharp and the contrast is good enough - particularly important in a movie such as this. Extras consist of a commentary by William Friedkin and the theatrical trailer. As I said, this is a crime story - with a noir sensibility, it should be added - dressed up as a horror film. I think it may be this hybrid quality that’s led to it’s being less celebrated than some of Lewton’s (or Tourneur’s for that matter) other pictures. Regardless, it remains a classy chiller that works well on both levels, and is a fine example of how to make a good movie on a shoestring budget.

Rio Conchos

Posted on October 18th, 2011 in 1960s, Westerns by Colin

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I’ve always enjoyed looking at the way the western evolved over the years. There’s a, fairly common, misconception that the spaghetti western just kind of exploded onto the scene in a genre busting blaze of immorality and violence. However, that’s a superficial reading of things; the foundations were being laid a decade before and the progression isn’t that hard to follow. Anyway, the consensus seems to hold that the spaghettis gave the traditional western a much needed jolt to shake it out of the doldrums it was in danger of slipping into. That’s hard to argue with, but I’m not sure the Hollywood western wasn’t heading in more or less the same direction of its own accord regardless of outside pressure. When you look at some examples of genre pieces from the mid-60s there are already indications of their straddling the two, seemingly irreconcilable, eras. Rio Conchos (1964) makes for interesting viewing in this context, having the trappings and look of the traditional oater but displaying an attitude and sensibility closer to the emerging European westerns.

At the heart of Rio Conchos lies revenge - there’s essentially no nobility on show, nor very much in the way of finer feelings of any kind. The main character is Lassiter (Richard Boone), a former confederate Major who’s almost totally consumed with a killing rage sparked by the torture and murder of his wife and child by the Apache. This man hunts down and disposes of his enemy with a ruthless precision. The opening shots are of Lassiter calmly massacring an Apache burial party, before heading back to the ruins of his former home to get drunk amid the personal and physical devastation. He would appear content to spend the remainder of his existence extracting his pound of flesh every time the opportunity arose. But that’s not to be, as he finds himself coerced into participating in an army plan to recover a shipment of stolen rifles thought to be over the border in Mexico and soon to be sold to an eager Apache warlord, Bloodshirt (Rodolfo Acosta). Lassiter’s motivation, apart from a desire to get out of the army guardhouse, is the chance to even his personal score with Bloodshirt and he has no particular sympathy for the two cavalrymen, Captain Haven (Stuart Whitman) and Sergeant Franklyn (Jim Brown), that he’s guiding. Haven’s on a mission of vengeance too, being the man in charge of the original arms shipment that’s gone missing. His quest may be dressed up in the guise of duty, but there’s no hiding the fact that he too is seeking some form of recompense for the slight to his reputation. The party is completed by a Mexican rogue, Rodriguez (Tony Franciosa), whose involvement is quite simple: he’s out to avoid the hangman’s rope and hopefully line his pockets in the process. In the more traditional scenario, this ill-assorted group bound together by a common objective would include at least one member driven by some higher moral sense. Not in this case though; all (with the possible exception of the cipher-like Franklyn) are pandering to their own base instincts. Everything builds towards a surreal climax on the banks of the titular river, where a demented Colonel (Edmond O’Brien) twisted by the bitterness of defeat in the Civil War plots merciless retribution for his conquerors.

Stuart Whitman & Richard Boone in Rio Conchos.

Director Gordon Douglas made a lot of so-so films but he had it in him to produce something of real quality when the conditions were right. Rio Conchos is among his best movies (and Only the Valiant is another little dark gem tucked away in his filmography) due largely to the tough and cynical script and an uncompromising performance by Richard Boone. To Douglas’ credit, the action scenes are extremely well staged and, along with cameraman Joe MacDonald, he really makes the most of the rugged Utah locations. Still, it’s Boone that carries it all along, playing a mere shell of a man subsisting on hatred and bitterness. His craggy, lived-in features were ideal for westerns, from his iconic Paladin in TV’s Have Gun - Will Travel to a couple of memorable appearances as the villain in two John Wayne pictures, to name just a few. I’ve seen it written that his performance is a bit one note, but I don’t think that’s being entirely fair. One sequence in particular has him showing two vastly different sides to his character within minutes. I’m referring to the scene where the travellers come upon a burned out house containing what one assumes is a tortured and/or violated woman, moaning in agony on her deathbed, while her infant lies neglected in a cot alongside. We can see a series of emotions playing across Boone’s face, but the predominant one is a deep hurt as the terrible vision obviously brings back memories of the fate of his own wife and child. As he puts the woman out of her misery he is close to breaking down totally, the mask of toughness slipping momentarily in the now deserted room. When the raiding party returns to harry the trapped men though, Boone reverts to type almost instantaneously. There is something terrible in his primal joy, the gales of malicious laughter he expels when watching a downed Apache burning to death before his eyes. It could be argued that Lassiter undergoes a change of heart as the quest progresses, seeing that the army mission has some worth in itself that supersedes his own desire for vengeance. Again, I don’t read it that way. The confrontation with Rodriguez seems to me not so much a realization that there are higher issues at stake but more a necessary way of ensuring that his own ambitions are not thwarted.

By the time the climax rolls round, the obsessive nature of Lassiter’s rage seems tame and reasonable when compared to the schemes of the deluded Colonel played by Edmond O’Brien. He only appears late on in the film but he makes a deep and lasting impression. At the outset, O’Brien’s character seems merely eccentric. However, when he opens the door to his reproduction plantation mansion and invites Lassiter to step inside the full extent of his madness is revealed. This castle in the desert is little more than a facade, a half-constructed monument to a world that’s passed away yet he struts around like he’s entertaining company back in Virginia. O’Brien wisely tones down the histrionics and lets his words and outlandish surroundings convey the imbalance of his mind instead. The ending, though it might be termed abrupt and somewhat inconclusive, is a wonderful exercise in nihilism. It’s this, rather than the violent tone of the movie, that persuades me that the Hollywood western was already moving in the direction of the spaghettis. The classic era of the Hollywood western told stories that invariably held out the promise of redemption for one or more of the lead characters. What sets the likes of Rio Conchos apart is the total lack of concern for any kind spiritual salvation. In the end, nobody really triumphs and no higher purpose is achieved - none of the characters, whether living or dead by this point, have advanced much from the stage they were at when we saw them initially. 

The German DVD of Rio Conchos from Koch Media treats the film very well. There’s a strong anamorphic scope transfer with rich colours, especially evident in the red clay of the locations. There is no damage worth mentioning present on the print used and detail is again strong. The English soundtrack (with subs that are removable via the main menu) is a nice stereo mix that does justice to the frequent heavy gunshots, and also to Jerry Goldsmith’s powerful, driving score. The disc is nicely packaged in an attractive digibook format with notes (in German) and supplements the trailer and gallery that are provided as extras. The film may not qualify as one of the true greats of the genre, but it’s still a high quality production that marks an important stage in the evolution of the western. If you haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend seeking it out.

Gun for a Coward

Posted on October 10th, 2011 in 1950s, Westerns, Fred MacMurray by Colin

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The western is arguably the most masculine genre around, celebrating toughness and highlighting the virtues of honour, pride, independence and courage. As such, it’s ideally suited to the exploration and analysis of what we consider manhood to be. The 1950s, with the predominance of what’s referred to as the psychological western, mined this theme extensively. Gun for a Coward (1957) attempts to nail down the essence of what makes a man and how his courage, or lack of it, defines him. I say “attempts” because I’m not sure it succeeds entirely in what it sets out to do, settling for the easy option at the end and not quite satisfying as a result.

The story centres around the Keough family, their struggle to build up a ranch and the dynamic between three very different brothers. Since the death of their father the paternal role has been adopted by Will (Fred MacMurray), the eldest of the three and a man who’s seen youth pass him by as the burdens of being the head of the family took priority. Still, he’s a man who’s held onto his dreams and hopes to marry the daughter of a neighbouring rancher now that financial success is within his grasp. Of the two other siblings, Hade (Dean Stockwell) is the youngest and the most aggressively reckless. In the middle, and at the heart of the story itself, is Bless (Jeffrey Hunter), the most sensitive of the trio and their mother’s favourite. Bless is the son who’s character is closest to that of his mother; he’s cautious, passive and non-confrontational. The thing is, these are not the traits that garner respect in the rough and tumble world of the west. Bless has earned a reputation as a physical coward, a man who will always back down rather than meet things head on. Later, we learn that the roots of this lie in the past and relate to the fate of his father - although I’m not sure the explanation we get really stands up to a great deal of scrutiny. Matters come to a head during a cattle drive to Abilene, when a series of events all combine to expose Bless to one physical and moral challenge after another. The upshot is that all those around: friends and workers, the other Keough brothers and, most crucially, Bless himself come to question what kind of man he really is. The resolution, when it comes around, conveniently affirms Bless’ physical bravery, but I don’t believe that was ever in serious doubt in the first place. While the perceptions of others may have branded Bless as one who was afraid to go head to head with another in a physical confrontation, the viewer is aware that his evasiveness is based more on a kind of innate knowledge that such grandstanding is ultimately futile. The real issue is Bless’ moral cowardice: his sidestepping a showdown with his mother when she is bent on moving east to take him away from the dangers and hardships of life on the frontier; his failure to do the right thing by the girl he loves; and, related to the previous, his inability to lay the facts on the table with Will. All of these matters are resolved at one point or another, though Bless never really picks up the reins and forces things himself.

Sibling rivalry - Dean Stockwell, Jeffrey Hunter and Fred MacMurray in Gun for a Coward.

Actor-turned-director Abner Biberman worked mostly in television and I think it’s fair to say his handling of his directorial duties on Gun for a Coward are unspectacular. I don’t mean to say that his work is bad, just that it’s fairly anonymous. He knew how to compose a shot and shoot an action scene, yet there’s nothing especially memorable about any of it. What raises this movie up, and it is a good movie, is the script and the acting. The writing is layered and has a great deal of depth (even if it’s not as fully explored as it could be), slotting itself comfortably into place among the many examinations of human complexity that the decade’s western has to offer. Fred MacMurray, as was the case with a number of aging stars, drifted into the western in the 50s and found a degree of success there. He plays the stable, rock-like character, the voice of reason and the point of reference for the viewer. While he may have been a little old for the role of Will (especially when it’s borne in mind that Josephine Hutchinson, as his mother, was only something like five years older) the part does call for a degree of maturity, and MacMurray also had a knack for conveying the necessary quality of quietly wounded dignity. Dean Stockwell’s young hothead is something of a caricature and there’s more than a hint of a James Dean impersonation in there. The honours really belong to Jeffrey Hunter though, who managed to get inside the skin of Bless and create a completely believable figure. Hunter could project a certain vulnerability when called upon to do so, and in Bless he becomes that man who is aware of his own weaknesses and, consequently, has come to question his stature within both his family and the wider community. Of the supporting players I want to single out Chill Wills, not just for his part in this movie but for his all round contribution to the genre. His was one of those immediately recognizable faces and voices that seemed to turn up in every other western, and invariably enriched the viewing experience.

Gun for a Coward is now available from a number of sources on DVD - a US MOD disc, and reportedly less than satisfactory editions in France and Spain. However, when I saw that it was out on pressed disc in Australia from a company called Visual Entertainment Group (who seem to have licensed a number of Universal and Fox titles) I thought I’d give it a go. I have to say that this R4 release presents the film very nicely - it’s a strong anamorphic scope transfer that’s clean and consistent. The only weak section I noticed was a brief insert that appears during the drive to Abilene, and since that looks a lot like a piece of stock footage it’s not really the fault of the DVD presentation. The disc is very basic with no extras whatsoever. Still, the movie itself is presented handsomely, and the cover pleasingly reproduces the original poster art. All in all, I’d rate Gun for a Coward as a respectable entry among the westerns of the 1950s. When you bear in mind that the decade in question is practically bursting at the seams with classics of the genre I don’t think I’m being mean in my assessment. I certainly recommend checking this one out.

Golden Salamander

Posted on October 4th, 2011 in 1950s, Mystery/Thriller, Ronald Neame by Colin

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In the years following the war the British film industry was turning out some quality pictures. The best of them remain rightly celebrated and the poorer efforts have been all but forgotten. There is, however, a kind of murky middle ground crammed full of the kind of movies that were a cut above the average yet not quite top flight material either. I often find myself drawn to these films as there’s much to admire but, seeing as they’re largely off the radar of present day viewers, little or no critical analysis to be found. The Golden Salamander (1950) is a handsomely shot movie, well acted, engagingly plotted and filmed on location. All in all, it has a lot going for it - it should be better known but the fact is it’s something of an obscure film. If this blog has any purpose other than providing a platform for me to record my thoughts then it’s to be hoped that, from time to time, it also introduces someone, somewhere to the kind of picture they might never otherwise have heard of or thought about.

The movie kicks off strongly and initially looks like it’s going to play out like a noir picture. A car is making its way along a stretch of road in Tunisia in the middle of a violent storm. The rain is hammering down relentlessly and the darkness is closed in oppressively on all sides with only the headlights cutting a feeble path ahead. Hunched in the gloom, the driver squints through the rain-streaked windscreen and forges on. By sheer luck he avoids running slap into a landslide that’s taken out the road. As he gets out to try to discover a way round the obstruction, he comes upon a wrecked and abandoned truck. His good fortune in avoiding an accident is revealed to be one of those sneaky tricks of fate when he finds that the truck was apparently part of a gun running operation. This whole sequence takes place without a word of dialogue and the murkiness of a rotten night is only broken by the occasional flashes of lightning that draw attention to the important sights. That wonderful atmosphere is retained as the tired and muddy traveller makes his way to the nearest town, and the welcoming light of the local inn. It’s here that we learn his identity: David Redfern (Trevor Howard), a British archaeologist sent to catalogue and collect some ancient artifacts (including the golden salamander of the title) before overseeing their shipping. His close call on the washed out road has placed him in a perilous position though, with the gun runners suspecting (though at first not sure) that he’s seen something. What draws him deeper into danger is his becoming romantically involved with the young proprietress of the inn, Anna (Anouk Aimee), whose brother is part of the smuggling gang. The plot is a straight thriller that sees Redfern first wrestling with indecision before resolving to take action when a tragic turn of events forces his hand. Even then he has to face up to the fact that the town is a nest of corruption where it’s impossible to be sure who, if anyone, can be trusted.

Trevor Howard & Anouk Aimee - Golden Salamander.

The two greatest strengths of the film are the visuals and the location work. This was one of director Ronald Neame’s earliest efforts and he, along with cameraman Oswald Morris, takes turns at bathing the screen first in deep, moody shadow and then in bright sunlight. For an up and coming director Neame shows great skill in his handling of composition and framing too, drawing the eye to the pertinent and subtly altering the mood with clever placement of characters and objects. The location shooting in Tunisia adds an air of realism that’s a big asset and lends a greater sense of openness to the exterior work. So much for the positives; the weakness lies primarily in the script, as is so often the case. While I understand that the romance between Redfern and Anna is a necessary ingredient and provides the motivation for the hero to finally act decisively, it has to be said that it’s never a convincing one and, furthermore, slows the story too much in the middle. It leads to that old problem of a strong opening and climax held together by a slightly stodgy and flabby middle section. Of course, the fact that so much of this part of the story depends on the interaction between Trevor Howard and Anouk Aimee is a contributory factor too. Howard plays the role of Redfern with a slight stiffness, but in fairness I think that’s simply a part of the character and can’t really be taken as a criticism of the performance. The thing is he looked a good deal older than his years at that time and having him play off a teenage Anouk Aimee is a little disconcerting. Additionally, she was acting in only her first English language film and that does seem to have had an effect on her performance - her delivery is never natural and she looks vaguely uncomfortable throughout. Still, there are some fine supporting turns to shore matters up: Herbert Lom is first class as the main heavy, Miles Malleson downplays his comic side as the local policeman, and Wilfrid Hyde-White has a great little part as the slightly seedy pianist channeling Hoagy Carmichael.

I used to have a copy of Golden Salamander that I got as a freebie with a Greek newspaper years ago, and it was a fairly ropey transfer. However, the film has just recently been released in the UK on DVD by Odeon. The disc isn’t a perfect one, there’s a softness to the image here and there, and a few speckles. Having said that, there are also stronger sections where detail is much better defined and print damage is generally minimal. Extras are a selection of trailers for other Odeon titles, a photo gallery and a booklet of liner notes. I’m not going to claim that this movie is a classic just waiting to be rediscovered; there are the issues with scripting and structure to take into account. Still and all, it is a good mid-range effort that has more than enough plus points in its favour to earn it a recommendation.