Lone Star

Posted on October 28th, 2010 in 1950s, Westerns, Ava Gardner, Clark Gable by Colin

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Last time I found myself singing the praises of a movie that represents some of the best that westerns in the 1950s had to offer. Now I’m looking at another western, also from the 50s, but not at all in the same class. Lone Star (1952) is one of those pseudo-historical pieces that frequently end up skating on thin ice due to their vaguely pompous air. The problem with this one could be summed up in one word - politics. When a film sets out to glorify a political position, any political position, it almost always does so at the expense of pace and drama. Lone Star isn’t an especially long movie - about an hour and a half - but it just plods along.

The plot revolves around the question of whether Texas was to allow itself to be absorbed into the US or go it alone as an independent republic. Now this was a fairly complex issue, and one worthy of some research. However, by placing this at the centre of a western that badly wants to be an action picture a rare feat is accomplished: the facts are merely skimmed over, the characters are stripped of personality, the narrative drive is killed stone dead, and the viewer becomes apathetic. Dev Burke (Clark Gable) is a Texas cattleman with a patriotic background - it’s mentioned that he fought against Santa Anna - and the trust of prominent men. With the annexation of Texas hanging in the balance, Burke is handed the task of heading south to try to head off the challenge of those clamoring for a republic. The chief mover and shaker in the anti-annexation camp is Thomas Craden (Broderick Crawford), and he needs to be silenced if Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston are to achieve their goal. En route to Texas, Burke comes to the aid of Craden who’s running hard from a Comanche war party. There’s an exciting and well filmed sequence where the two men hold off the Comanche through brutal hand-to-hand combat. If only there were more of this then we’d be looking at a superior movie. But no, no sooner has the fight ended than we’re back to the turgid business of arguing the pros and cons of statehood. Burke hasn’t revealed his identity to Craden and thus finds himself welcomed into his inner circle. Everything would seem to be going according to plan for Burke, were it not for the fact that he meets Martha Ronda (Ava Gardner). She is Craden’s woman and a rabid opponent of annexation. Inevitably, both Burke and Martha are attracted to each other but the path of true love can never be smooth. It’s not unreasonable to expect some kind of triangle to emerge, and it does indeed happen. But the sticking point is not a question of conflicting emotional loyalties - no, it all comes down to appeasing one’s political allegiances! In the end, everything is resolved in a slam bang finish involving a well staged siege and assault. However, the final scene is a real cack-handed affair that runs contrary to all that’s gone before. 

Gable & Gardner - Lone Star.

Vincent Sherman was a genuine journeyman director, a man capable of turning out a pretty good movie when the material was right. Unfortunately, Borden Chase’s script is a real dog and I’d be hard pushed to imagine anyone managing to rise above it. Still, there are a few good action scenes and the outdoor stuff looks quite good. The cast do what they can - and there’s no shortage of strong support from Lionel Barrymore, Moroni Olsen, William Conrad, Ed Begley and Beulah Bondi - but they’re ultimately hamstrung by the quality of material they have to work with. Gable plays the kind of honourable rogue that was his trademark and Gardner looks exceptionally good. The problem is the frankly ridiculous romance they are required to blunder through - the whole will-they-won’t-they thing stretches credibility to breaking point given the framework in which it’s set. Crawford’s not bad either, and he’s not an actor I’ve ever been especially fond of, but is also let down by the writing.

I’m pretty sure that the only DVD of Lone Star is the Warner/Impulso release in Spain. The image on the disc isn’t bad, but there are scratches and speckles throughout and I suspect it’s undergone some contrast boosting. There are no extras whatsoever and the Spanish subs are removable on the English track, regardless of what the menu appears to claim. To be honest, this is not a good film and it’s not representative of 1950s westerns. What it does have going for it is the star power of Gable and Gardner and a handful of action set pieces. In all good faith, I couldn’t recommend this to any but the most diehard Gable or Gardner completists.

55 Days at Peking

Posted on November 29th, 2009 in 1960s, War, Nicholas Ray, Ava Gardner, Charlton Heston, David Niven by Colin

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I generally steer clear of writing about huge sprawling epics on this blog, but that’s not to say I don’t like them. As it happens I’m extremely fond of such films and often feel that it’s a near impossible task to do them justice in a relatively short write up. When I was growing up the Samuel Bronston movies were always a source of marvellous entertainment to me, and represented some of the most spectacular scenes ever put on film. So, when I realised this would be my hundredth post here I thought maybe it was time to turn my attention for once to a genuinely big film. I could have chosen El Cid or The Fall of the Roman Empire but opted instead for one of the so-called lesser Bronston’s, 55 Days at Peking (1963).

The action takes place in the summer of 1900, during the latter stages of the Boxer Rebellion, when the foreign legations in Peking came under siege. Without wanting to get mired in historical detail, it seems safe to say that the Boxers found their roots in a sense of unease over the growing foreign influence in China. At the time this influence was most apparent in the area of religion, with Christianity usurping the local variety. The movie opens with a brief voiceover narration to the accompaniment of a cacophony of national anthems assaulting the eardrums. After a little more exposition in the Forbidden City, the camera cuts to the arrival of a column of dusty and weary US marines. At their head is the swaggering figure of Major Lewis (Charlton Heston), no mean feat while still on horseback. That the situation in China is spiralling out of control is immediately obvious when we see an English priest, strapped to a water wheel, being slowly tortured to death. Lewis’ attempts to buy the priest fail and the only thing he and his men accomplish is the killing of a Boxer. From here events move inexorably towards the inevitable crisis. Despite the best efforts of the British minister, Sir Arthur Robertson (David Niven), a state of war is fast approaching. In the midst of the mounting chaos Lewis finds himself drawn into a romance with a Russian aristocrat of dubious reputation (Ava Gardner). This slow build up occupies the first half of the film and it is quite heavy going. However, there are some visually impressive set pieces, such as the confrontation with a Boxer “theatrical” group during the Queen’s birthday celebrations, to keep it from becoming totally bogged down.

It’s only with the murder of the German envoy that things start to heat up on the screen. This is the point where the real action and spectacle take centre stage. Lewis’ romance starts to fade into the background as all attention is focused on the ever more desperate attempts to defend the foreign compound from wave after wave of attacks from the fanatical Boxers. It’s these marvellously choreographed scenes of pitched battles along the ramparts that really breathe life into the movie. The maniacal determination of the Chinese to breach the foreign defences forces the besieged men to come up with ever more ingenious ways to repel them. When the Boxers wheel a massive tower laden with explosives up to the perimeter, and proceed to bombard the exposed compound below, there’s a wonderful scene wherein a French priest (Harry Andrews) with a suspiciously strong Irish brogue supervises the construction of an improvised mortar to lob fireballs back at them. While this all sounds slightly deranged on paper it’s filmed and performed with enough style and conviction to remain gripping and tense throughout. Even though the seemingly endless assaults and counterattacks make for great cinema in themselves, there’s also a well filmed sequence of a night time raid on the Chinese arsenal which concludes with a magnificent and explosive payoff. The only false note is having the British minister tool up and join the raiding party on their sortie - although I’m guessing it was done to give David Niven the chance to get away from pottering fretfully around his study.

Take my hand - Charlton Heston in 55 Days at Peking

One of the pleasures of watching the epic movies from this era is the knowledge that the sheer scale of the production wasn’t anything but real. Nowadays, in the age of CGI, the thought of something as financially prohibitive as building a full size replica of the besieged compound and filling it with literally thousands of swarming extras would be enough to give the average studio executive palpitations, if not an outright seizure. However, the fact that what you see on the screen in a movie like this is real and has actual physical mass adds something indefinable, a quality that’s now been lost. Somehow the very knowledge that you can now create pretty much any image imaginable on screen rubs away a little of the magic for me. To all intents and purposes 55 Days at Peking was Nicholas Ray’s last film, having walked away leaving it incomplete after one argument too many with Bronston he suffered a heart attack. It’s not his best work by any means and I don’t believe he was ideally suited to these kinds of large scale productions. Still, the striking use of colour throughout does seem to bear his hallmark. As far as the performers are concerned it’s Heston’s film all the way. Chuck was in the middle of that purple patch that would last another decade and he stamps his authority all over this picture. Though to be fair, while the film doesn’t develop his character to any meaningful degree it does offer ample opportunity for the kind of iconic posing only he could pull off convincingly. David Niven’s quiet, gentlemanly dignity is a welcome contrast (his casual flicking aside of the kneeling cushion when summoned before the Dowager Empress is a beautifully understated moment), and he even manages to make some fairly trite dialogue sound credible by adopting just the right amount of earnestness - a true professional. Ava Gardner was nearing the end of her days as a leading lady at this point and her performance is adequate but nothing more. I understand that she didn’t get along particularly well with Heston (they certainly don’t have a lot of on screen chemistry) so that may be part of the problem. Finally, a word about Dimitri Tiomkin’s score; his style is not to everyone’s taste and he’s sometimes criticised for being excessively bombastic, but I like it a lot and think it’s perfectly suited to this kind of larger than life movie.

55 Days at Peking is available on DVD from a number of sources worldwide, and the edition I have is one I picked up in Greece years ago. It was released on the PCV label and it’s got a fine anamorphic scope transfer that doesn’t suffer from any major damage or colour fading. The image is progressive and doesn’t look to me like it’s been manipulated excessively. I’ve had a look at the screencaps on the Beaver’s site and I’m fairly confident that my copy looks a good deal stronger than the Japanese one featured there. It’s R2 PAL, of course, and runs at 156 minutes including the overture, intermission, entre’acte and exit music. It’s a shame that reports of poor sales seem to have halted further releases in R1 of the Miriam Collection since the Bronston titles already out in that line are probably the best on the market. This is a movie that’s been neglected in more ways than one over the years and critics have rarely had many positive things to say about it. It is probably overlong and could use a little trimming in the first half, the use of Caucasian actors in the major Chinese roles is possibly a source of annoyance for some, but I still enjoy the movie immensely. Perhaps the fact that it’s a throwback to that vanished era of large scale, no holds barred filmmaking adds to its charm for me. I recommend it if you can get your hands on a decent copy.

Ride, Vaquero

Posted on October 6th, 2008 in 1950s, Westerns, John Farrow, Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, Anthony Quinn by Colin

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Ride, Vaquero (1953) was one of those films that always seemed to elude me. I’d read about it and heard about it often but, somehow, could never manage to see it. Well, I’ve finally got around to it. Robert Taylor wouldn’t be the first actor most people would think of as a western character but the fact is he made a good number of oaters in his time. I’ve been watching quite a few of his westerns recently (the ones in the R1 westerns set, and a TV broadcast of The Hangman) and this would probably be my favourite.

Rio (Taylor) is the right hand man for bandit chief Jose Esqueda (Anthony Quinn), operating along the Texas/Mexico border in the aftermath of the Civil War. The end of the war has thrown up new challenges for these men, namely the arrival of new settlers and the renewed interest of the army and the federal government. Esqueda understands that such developments will spell the end of his reign as the undisputed master of his territory. His preferred course of action is a simple one; drive out the settlers before they have had a chance to put down permanent roots. The toughest proposition Esqueda has yet to face comes in the form of King Cameron (Howard Keel), who has come west with his wife (Ava Gardner) to build a new life. An abortive raid on the Cameron ranch leads to the capture of Rio. Instead of handing him over to the law, Cameron offers Rio the opportunity to switch allegiances and become his partner. He accepts, but the question remains whether his decision is based on a desire to embrace a more lawful lifestyle, or just a desire to embrace Camerons wife.

Anthony Quinn

Director John Farrow manages to throw a number of big themes into the mix - the old ways vs progress, loyalty and betrayal, and a man’s need to hold onto what he has won. Taylor gives a good performance as a man who’s in search of his place in the world. He may seem cold and aloof, but that’s surely an essential part of the character. His precise relationship with Esqueda is not fully revealed until the end, and it goes a long way towards explaining the alienation his character feels. Anthony Quinn gives the lusty, larger-than-life treatment to his role of the bandit king, and it’s very enjoyable. Ava Gardner naturally looks great and brings a credibility to her part as the rancher’s wife with the wandering eye. Howard Keel is just about adequate but, since I believe this was his first non-musical role, I won’t be too harsh on him. There are also small yet memorable parts for Jack Elam and Ted De Corsia. 

Ride, Vaquero has recently been released on DVD by Warners in France. The disc is a barebones affair with removable French subs and, unfortunately, boasts a weak transfer. The image doesn’t seem to have undergone any restoration and looks soft throughout. The biggest problem though is the colour, which has faded badly. The film was shot using the cheap Anscocolor process and if you’ve seen the recent R1 of Escape form Fort Bravo you’ll have some idea of what to expect. That said, the film is well worth 90 minutes of anybody’s time and I’d recommend it, if you can get past the deficiencies in the DVD transfer.

The Killers

Posted on March 16th, 2008 in 1940s, Film Noir, Robert Siodmak, Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner by Colin

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I did something wrong…once.

So says the Swede (Burt Lancaster) as he lies in bed bereft of all hope, and calmly awaits his end. I love that scene near the beginning of the 1946 version of The Killers. It is one of the great moments of film noir and says so much about the genre - if you can even call it a genre. A good deal of its bleak power comes from the fact that it seems to run contrary to all normal human instincts. If someone were to burst into your room and breathlessly inform you that a couple of mean-looking hitmen had just rolled into town with the express aim of rubbing you out, most people would take the opportunity to make tracks fast. But Lancaster just remains prone in the shadows and delivers that line in the detached tone of a man already dead; when fate pays that last call there’s no ducking out. 

Robert Siodmak’s film takes Ernest Hemingway’s short story (and it’s a very short story) and uses it merely as the jumping off point. The rest of the movie follows insurance investigator Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) as he tries to find out why the Swede ended up in a small New Jersey town waiting passively to greet a hail of bullets. The story is revealed by a succession of characters who had known the Swede, and a number of flashbacks gradually piece together all the events that brought about his demise. The Swede starts off as a medium grade fighter who, after breaking his hand and ending his career, begins the slow descent into the criminal underworld. This culminates in a payroll heist, the aftermath of which leads to the eventual downfall of just about everybody involved. The character of the Swede is basically a good-natured oaf whose desire for easy money allows him to be dazzled and duped by the grasping and predatory Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). In a sense the whole film is as much about Kitty as anyone else; as we see her manipulations provide the catalyst for the betrayals that litter the story.

An eternal triangle - she's lookin' at him, lookin' at her.

The Killers marked the screen debut of Burt Lancaster and his tough vulnerability is shown to good effect in the movie. There’s enough innocence in the Swede for you to genuinely sympathise with him and despair at the big lug’s stupidity as Kitty plays him for the ultimate sucker. Ava Gardner’s Kitty gets the classic femme fatale intro; we first see her as the Swede does - seductively clad in black satin and vamping for all she’s worth in a night club. Her character is rotten all the way through - effortlessly hooking the smitten Swede, playing the gang off against each other, and finally, tearfully begging a dying man to save her neck by damning himself. The role of Edmond O’Brien is to offer perspective and lead the viewer through the labyrinth of deceit; he’s really the linking device between all the small episodes that make up the whole. O’Brien’s own guide along the way is police lieutenant Lubinsky (Sam Levene from the Thin Man movies) and there is good support from gang members Albert Dekker, Jack Lambert and Jeff Corey. However, two of the most memorable turns come from William Conrad and Charles McGraw as Max and Al, the killers of the title. Their roles don’t extend much beyond the first ten minutes of the film, but those are ten truly magical minutes. They get some of the choicest dialogue (and deliver it perfectly) as they simultaneously mock and menace the occupants of the Brentwood lunch counter.  

We're killing him for a friend. William Conrad & Charles McGraw.

Robert Siodmak made some of the best noirs of the forties and I feel The Killers is his standout work. This is one of those films where plot, direction, characterization and photography all seem to come together harmoniously. Deep, dark shadows are everywhere and only the policeman’s terrace, where the ideal wife serves lemonade on a hot day, seems to rise above the murkiness. I should also say a word about the powerful score by Miklos Rozsa which is especially effective whenever Messrs Conrad and McGraw make an appearance.

The Killers is out on DVD from Criterion in R1 and from Universal in R2. I can’t comment on the presentation on the R2 disc as I haven’t seen it but bitter experience has taught that Universal’s UK releases are a hit and miss affair, with a high proportion of misses. The Criterion is everything you would expect from them with a beautiful, clean transfer to show off those deep, black shadows. As you would expect, the film comes packed with useful and informative extras - and, best of all, it is paired with Don Siegel’s 1964 remake (and Andrei Tarkovsky’s student film version). All in all, this represents the definitive presentation of what is probably my favorite film noir.