The Naked Spur

Posted on September 18th, 2011 in 1950s, Westerns, Anthony Mann, James Stewart, Robert Ryan by Colin

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Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart - one of the three great director/actor partnerships (the others, of course, being John Ford and John Wayne and Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott) that made such an impact on the western and how it was to develop. The importance and the legacy of their collaborative body of work is undeniable; I think it’s safe to say there’s consensus on that. A thornier issue, or at least a more subjective one, is attempting to settle on their best work. When it comes to Stewart and Mann I reckon a case could be made for any one of their westerns - although I do feel that The Far Country is probably the least of them - which is a testament to the consistency of their quality. However, having given it a good deal of consideration, I feel The Naked Spur (1953) just about gets its nose in front. There are two major, interdependent, factors for this: the obsessive and relentless tone that never lets up, and a lead performance by Stewart that I can only describe as magnetic in its intensity.

That this is going to be a dark and tense affair is evident right away as Bronislau Kaper’s moody score plays over the blood red credits. A solitary rider slowly dismounts and ever so cautiously picks his way towards some target he’s spotted up ahead. This is Howard Kemp (James Stewart), a man who’s been doggedly pursuing a wanted murderer all the way from Kansas. On this occasion he doesn’t have his man, it’s merely an old prospector, Tate (Millard Mitchell), he’s stumbled upon. However, the two men strike a bargain to track what may be Kemp’s quarry. Before they can run down their man though they’re joined by another traveller: a flashy young man, Lt Anderson (Ralph Meeker), who’s just been drummed out of the army with a dishonourable discharge. Immediately, the viewer is caught a little off guard as there’s no clearly identifiable hero figure: Kemp is a driven, secretive man who’s exhibiting signs of instability; Anderson is a vain, amoral criminal; and Tate is a sly opportunist. When we finally see the fugitive, Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), he’s all smiles and affability, and he’s even got a beautiful young girl called Lina Patch (Janet Leigh) as company. Who are we to root for here? As the story progresses it does become clearer where our sympathies are being drawn. Nevertheless, at no point does it become a simple black hat vs white hat exercise. Apart from one short skirmish with a party of faceless Blackfeet, it’s these five, disparate characters who dominate proceedings as they trek across a breathtakingly beautiful landscape towards Kansas. The real conflict of the picture is contained within this tight group, and more specifically within the heart of Howard Kemp.

The eyes have it - James Stewart in The Naked Spur.

Anthony Mann’s direction is tight as a drum, never slackening the pace for more than a moment or two at a time and maintaining the high pressure atmosphere right to the end. He keeps the viewer on edge throughout with a bombardment of disorienting high and low angle shots and extreme close-ups, yet intersperses these with enough long range views to ensure that the geography of the action remains apparent. Even here though, where William C Mellor’s camera showcases the natural beauty of Colorado, the binding together of the five travellers is highlighted - simultaneously dwarfed by the towering mountain backdrops and still hemmed in by their need keep each other as close as possible at all times. There are also examples of what Jim Kitses refers to as Mann’s visual motif of a man straining to scale a high place. Kemp is the one who struggles, and fails initially, to reach that higher ground. By the end he succeeds, he’s no longer overreaching himself and consequently achieves the redemption he’s been searching for all along.

It’s the redemptive quest that marks The Naked Spur out as a genuine classic western, but what ensures its successful execution is the power of James Stewart’s performance. Stewart’s wartime experiences gave him a quality that’s very difficult to define but very easy to discern. He could still draw on and display the old geniality of his earlier years, yet there’s an edge there too. His eyes could suddenly fill up with doubt and paranoia, and that “aw shucks” drawl could just as easily strangle itself into a choked stammer. Both Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock got him to tap into this and coaxed performances from him that are almost painful in their honesty. Stewart’s Howard Kemp is a real three dimensional character, a man who marched off to war to do his duty yet finds that in so doing he has ended up at war with himself. He’s driving himself to reverse the mistakes of the past while also loathing the kind of man he’s forced himself to become in the process. In contrast, Robert Ryan’s Vandergroat is a man at peace with himself; he knows he’s no good, he feels no regret for his past actions, and has no hesitation in turning any situation to his own advantage. Ryan was usually best when he was bad, and in this movie he turns on the charm as the unscrupulous student of human weakness to whom manipulation is second nature.

It’s always disappointing when a top movie is handed a less than ideal presentation. The R1 DVD of The Naked Spur from Warner Bros is not a terrible transfer, but it is weak. Clearly, there was no restoration done on this title, and while there isn’t any significant print damage visible there is a softness and lack of detail in the image. These muted visuals are especially noticeable in the long shots. Extras on the disc are confined to a couple of shorts and the theatrical trailer. Anyway, I feel this film remains the pick of the Mann/Stewart westerns, although that’s not to be taken as a criticism of the other films they made together. I’d just place it at the top of an already highly elevated group of films.

Two Rode Together

Posted on February 3rd, 2010 in 1960s, John Ford, Westerns, Richard Widmark, James Stewart by Colin

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“The worst piece of crap I’ve done in twenty years.” Those were John Ford’s own words when assessing Two Rode Together (1961). Even now, critics never seem to have anything very positive to say about this film. Ford’s work in the 60s was certainly patchy, even more so when it’s held up for comparison against his earlier movies. I’m not sure this is as much of a dog as its reputation suggests; it’s a weak John Ford film for sure, but even a lesser work from the great man always had some points to recommend it.

Two Rode Together is frequently referred to as a rehash of themes explored in The Searchers, and that’s one of the problems identified right away. Where the earlier classic had depth, gravity and passion this film feels superficial and, at times, cartoonish. However, I’m not convinced the two movies ought to be compared too closely. For one thing, The Searchers focused on the quest and those involved in it, whereas Two Rode Together is really about the consequences of rehabilitation for the rescued captives. Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart) is a marshal in the town of Tascosa, an enviable position in that it entitles him to a 10% cut of everything in the place. His idyllic lifestyle is interrupted, however, when Lt. Jim Gary (Richard Widmark) and his troops arrive to escort the dissipated lawman back to the fort. The army intend to press the reluctant McCabe into acting as a scout/intermediary in order to make contact with the Comanche Quanah Parker (Henry Brandon) and trade for the release of white captives. McCabe is nothing if not a coldly realistic man, and he knows full well that what the army is asking is basically a fool’s errand. Although his cynicism is viewed with contempt by the soldiers, subsequent events will prove that it’s his assessment that’s more grounded in reality. Lt. Gary is sent along to keep a watchful eye on McCabe (he’s regarded as an amoral mercenary at best), and in so doing has his eyes opened and his preconceptions challenged. When it becomes apparent that the surviving captives have been so deeply integrated into Comanche life as to be unrecognisable the decision is taken to return with only two captives: a teenager, Running Wolf, and a Mexican woman, Elena (Linda Cristal). Instead of being greeted as heroes and saviours, both McCabe and Gary find themselves viewed as being partly responsible for the tragedy that ensues. The fear, hatred and suspicion of the Comanche are so deeply ingrained in the whites that there can be no happy homecoming for anyone, and McCabe’s cynicism and skeptcism that were initially painted as repugnant are now seen to be vindicated.

Getting down to business - Richard Widmark & James Stewart.

John Ford’s penchant for broad, knockabout comedy is very much an acquired taste, and you’re either ok with it or you’re not. I mention this because Two Rode Together is liberally laced with instances of trademark Fordian humour. A good deal of this is centered around Andy Devine’s grossly overweight Sgt. Posey and it’s of the hit and miss variety. What’s altogether more successful is the gentle jibing that takes place between Widmark and Stewart as it helps to flesh out and humanise their characters. Ford’s direction is unaccountably flat in general, and really only strikes home in the scenes that focus on the desperation and emotional pain of the homesteaders who yearn for news of their loved ones. Even the landscapes look dull and uninspiring, which is atypical for a Ford film. Of course, news came through during shooting of the passing of the director’s old crony and frequent collaborator Ward Bond, and that may go some way to explaining the slightly detached feeling that permeates the whole picture. If it weren’t for the performances of Widmark and Stewart then this movie would be a real tough slog. Their scenes together constitute the core of the film and help keep it afloat. Widmark is good enough but I didn’t get the impression that he was operating at full throttle, whereas Jimmy Stewart throws himself into the part completely. By this time Stewart had mastered the art of icy indignation and half-suppressed emotion, and it serves him well in the later scenes where he confronts the ugly face of naked racism back at the fort. Of the female characters Shirley Jones received third billing but her part is an undeveloped one and seems to peter out just when it should have taken centre stage. Linda Cristal fares much better as the former captive who’s deeply unsure of her place in society; her discomfort is nearly tangible when she’s paraded in front of the army wives, and she visibly wilts before their prying eyes.

Two Rode Together remains absent on DVD in the US but it’s widely available in R2. Sony’s UK disc offers an anamorphic widescreen transfer that’s goodish without being in any way exceptional. It could use a bit of a clean up but there aren’t any serious flaws. Both colours and sharpness are reasonable enough but, like the movie itself, don’t exactly pop off the screen. There are absolutely no extras at all but this title can be picked up very cheaply, so one shouldn’t complain too much. Well, this is a long way from classic Ford but the playing of the two leads does raise it above the mundane and lends some class. The truth is it’s not a bad little western - it’s just not a great John Ford western.

Broken Arrow

Posted on June 3rd, 2008 in 1950s, Westerns, Delmer Daves, James Stewart, Jeff Chandler by Colin

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The 1950s were the heyday of the western. You can look at almost any other decade and find plenty of examples of exceptional westerns, but none can compare to the 50s in terms of the sheer number of intelligent, high quality productions. Broken Arrow (1950) was, to the best of my knowledge, the first western to portray the Indians as more than simple caricatures. This film doesn’t demonise them, nor does it present them as the mystical, tree-hugging hippies that our increasingly politically correct world seems to insist on. Instead it presents a people with their own way of life and their own system of values.

Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) is a former army scout who stumbles upon a wounded Apache boy and nurses him back to health. In doing so, he starts to regard the Apache as real people who think and feel, and who are not just inhuman killing machines that must be eliminated at all costs. When he is subsequently captured by a raiding party, his act of kindness, though viewed with suspicion, leads to his being spared. However, he is forced to witness three survivors of an ambush tortured to death; this is a war of attrition with no quarter given or asked for from either side. The point is made that these are a people with a strong sense of honor but there is no shying away from their capacity for brutality. Jeffords’ return to white society gives an insight into the cruelty and brutality on both sides, as the town’s residents display  both  shock and incredulity on hearing that he failed to take the opportunity to kill a wounded Apache. Sickened by the endless cycle of tit-for-tat violence, Jeffords takes it upon himself to seek out a meeting with Cochise (Jeff Chandler) in order to try to find some middle ground. The meeting does produce some limited results, and also brings him into contact with a young Apache maiden (Debra Paget). As Jeffords finds himself falling in love, so he seeks to broker a peace deal between Cochise and the army. The racism prevalent on both sides is shown clearly and the film, to its credit, doesn’t try to lecture the viewer on who was right and who was wrong. It assumes that adults are capable of making up their own minds - seems such an odd concept these days, doesn’t it?

James Stewart gave one of his usual solid performances, and by the end of the movie you can see director Delmer Daves draw on some of the disillusioned bitterness that Anthony Mann would later exploit so successfully. Jeff Chandler’s portrayal of Cochise earned him an Oscar nomination (eventually losing out to George Sanders), and he is convincing in the role. Generally, the acting is fine all round with good work from Paget, Will Geer, and Jay (Tonto) Silverheels as Geronimo. Delmer Daves is a director who seems to be very underrated these days, but I feel he turned out some great movies (especially in the western genre) in the 50s. One criticism that could be levelled at him is that his endings were frequently a bit of a cop out, however, I don’t feel that it applies in this case.

James Stewart

Broken Arrow is a great example of a 1950s western and, if you have even a passing interest in the genre, it deserves a place in your collection. I watched the R2 DVD from Optimum which is far from a perfect disc. The colors vary from faded to strong and the image is generally soft. Having said that though, it’s by no means a terrible presentation and is certainly watchable throughout. There is a R1 release from Fox but I don’t own this and can’t comment on the transfer.

If anyone has been wondering where I’ve been, I just decided to take a little break from posting. As others have mentioned, you can reach the point where you post so often that it starts to feel like an obligation rather than a pleasure. As such, I’ve decided to post when I feel like it rather than try to fulfill some notional quota I’ve set myself. So, until the next time…

Cheyenne Autumn

Posted on April 26th, 2008 in 1960s, John Ford, Westerns, Richard Widmark, James Stewart by Colin

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John Ford made Cheyenne Autumn in 1964 and with it he bade farewell to the western, the genre with which he was and is most frequently associated. By his own admission, Ford wanted this to be his attempt at setting the record straight with regard to the injustices visited upon the American Indians. Taken as such, it is fairly successful in depicting a people hounded almost to the point of extinction, without indulging in the politically correct schmaltz that more recent Indian centered epics have fallen prey to. Yet it is not a perfect film and does have its faults, not the least of which are the uneven tone and, to a lesser extent, some of the casting decisions.

The story concerns the Cheyenne who, having been moved to a reservation in Oklahoma, were dying a slow death as a result of disease, starvation and neglect. When a promised meeting with a Congressional committee fails to materialise, they take the bold and, in their minds the only viable, decision to strike out on a march back to their tribal homeland in Montana, 1500 miles to the north. Their journey is seen from the perspective of both the Cheyenne chiefs (Gilbert Roland & Ricardo Montalban) and the soldiers (under the command of Richard Widmark) charged with running them to ground. While the film’s sympathy lies with the hunted, the main focus is on the the various soldiers and civilians who pursue or encounter them. This is both a strength and a weakness of the film; a weakness because the characters of the Cheyenne are never explored in any great depth. The strength comes from the way the white characters are represented as holding a whole variety of, often conflicting, views on the fugitives.

The roles of the principal Cheyenne characters are filled by Mexicans (Montalban, Roland & Dolores Del Rio) and an Italian (Sal Mineo). In truth, this doesn’t work out too badly (I’ve never felt that a part can/should only be played by an actor of the same ethnic origin as the character - it’s called ‘acting’ fer chrissakes!) although Sal Mineo is far too much of a wuss to be taken seriously as a fiery Cheyenne warrior. Richard Widmark is good, as always, as the reluctant cavalryman who knows he has a job to do but also knows he doesn’t have to enjoy it. Pat Wayne is quite wooden as a young Lieutenant who experiences a “road to Damascus” type conversion, going from rabid bloodlust to outraged empathy over the course of the story. Karl Malden is a caricature of a Prussian officer whose blind devotion to duty and orders ultimately leads to tragedy. There are also small roles for George O’Brien (a ‘the-only-good-Indian-is-a-dead-Indian’ Major) and Sean McClory (a professional Irishman). Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jnr appear as cavalrymen and get to show off some mighty impressive horse-riding skills - and there’s a nice running joke where Widmark can never remember that Carey is playing a character called Smith, referring to him variously as Jones, Murphy etc.

Figures in a landscape - a typical Ford shot.

Now a word about the Wyatt Earp scene in the movie. To be blunt, I hated it when I first saw it and I still hate it. The whole thing feels wrong, like it was grafted in from another picture. It’s the kind of sequence that wouldn’t be out of place in a ‘Carry On’ film - that bad! We get twenty minutes of Earp (James Stewart) and Doc Holliday (Arthur Kennedy) playing poker in Dodge City and having their game interrupted by the news of the Cheyenne being sighted nearby. There follows a Wacky Races type chase through the desert, culminating in a saloon girl losing her dress and winding up with her legs around Stewarts neck. Laugh, I thought I’d never start. In his biography of Ford, Joe McBride claims that the director used this sequence as a means of highlighting (through satire) the casual racism of the civilian population, but I don’t buy it. That bigotry had already been shown when a trail hand (Ken Curtis) callously murdered and scalped an Indian begging for food. In fact, the power of the aforementioned scene is effectively ruined by the subsequent clowning of Curtis in Dodge. I can’t think what came over Pappy but this part of the movie definitely didn’t need to be shot.

Warners put Cheyenne Autumn out on DVD as part of their ‘John Ford Film Collection’. As far as I know it is still only available as part of that set. The transfer is probably the best of all the films in the collection. It’s anamorphic scope with no damage of any consequence and strong true colors. The disc carries a commentary from Joe McBride and a featurette on the film and the historical events that inspired it. Maybe it’s not Ford’s best film but it works well enough for the most part, offering a different perspective from Pappy yet retaining his trademark visual and narrative touches.

Winchester 73

Posted on April 16th, 2008 in 1950s, Westerns, Anthony Mann, James Stewart by Colin

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Down through the years there have been a number of significant collaborations between directors and actors, such as Ford and Fonda, Ford and Wayne, and Huston and Bogart. In 1950 another such partnership was born, that of Anthony Mann and James Stewart. Their work together was to change the direction of both their careers, and produce some of the best cinema of the decade. Anthony Mann had made his reputation with a series of fine noirs in the last half of the 40s, but he had never done a western. Jimmy Stewart’s name had been built on the light leading man roles he excelled in before the war; with the exception of the comedic Destry Rides Again he was another relative stranger to the Old West. However, as a result of the success of Winchester 73 the names of both men would be forever linked to the oldest genre of them all. They went on to make eight films together, five of them westerns.

The story concerns Lin McAdam (Stewart) who arrives in Dodge City on July 4th 1876 and enters a sharpshooting contest presided over by none other than Wyatt Earp (Will Geer), Virgil Earp and Bat Masterson. The contest’s first prize is the famous rifle of the title, and it soon comes down to a run-off between McAdam and Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally). There’s clearly a history of bad blood between the two men, and when McAdam wins it’s not long before Dutch Henry robs him and makes off with the gun. The film then chronicles McAdam’s search for his stolen rifle, and his pursuit of the man who took it. But that’s really only a plot device, a kind of Hitchcockian McGuffin - something of greater significance to the characters than it is to the audience. While the gun is admired, valued and coveted by everyone who comes across it, it is not the sole, nor even the most important reason for McAdam’s dogged quest. This is a dark tale of revenge and the settling of old scores and, despite the dropping of a number of hints, the cause is not stated explicitly until the end.

James Stewart crosses over to the dark side.

Jimmy Stewart’s pre-war career consisted mainly of Mr Nice Guy roles, while the years following his return found him floundering around in search of a niche. Although It’s a Wonderful Life and Rope offered him roles with a greater complexity, Lin McAdam was a complete departure for him. This part, and subsequent ones with Mann, allowed him to display a cold ruthlessness that the public hadn’t seen before. In addition, he seems so completely at home in the saddle that it’s hard to believe this was his first serious western character. The film boasts a marvellous cast of character actors and up and coming talent: Stephen McNally and Dan Duryea (playing Waco Johnny Dean - lots of exotic character names in this movie) as villains, Shelley Winters as a luckless saloon girl, Millard Mitchell, John McIntire, Jay C. Flippen, and early parts for Tony Curtis and Rock Hudson.

The character of Wyatt Earp is really only incidental to the story here. His appearance is limited to the first twenty minutes or so and doesn’t add much to the narrative. Earp was an assistant marshal in Dodge at around the time the story takes place but the film suggests he was the principal lawman in the city. Will Geer portrays him as a folksy, down home type which seems at odds with the popular conception of the man. When McAdam challenges his authority early on, he fumbles around in his vest pocket for his tin star before almost sheepishly revealing his identity. One would have expected the real Earp to have kicked the upstart’s butt up and down the street.

Winchester 73 is a Universal release on DVD in R1 and R2, and it’s a fine looking disc. Not only is the transfer clean and tight, but there’s one fantastic extra. The film comes with a feature length scene specific commentary by Jimmy Stewart. I’m not usually one who gets too excited by extras in general, especially commentaries - but this kind of stuff is cinematic gold dust. Most of the stars of this period were long gone by the time the idea of recording commentaries occurred to anyone, so this is one to be treasured.

Night Passage

Posted on January 14th, 2008 in 1950s, Westerns, James Stewart, Audie Murphy by Colin

Two brothers, one an outlaw and the other a former railroad troubleshooter in disgrace, square off. That’s the basic premise of  Night Passage.

Jimmy Stewart is the honest man who is now reduced to scratching out a living as an accordion player after letting his no-good sibling Audie Murphy escape five years previously. He gets a last chance to redeem himself when his ex-boss hires him again. The railroad payroll has been repeatedly robbed by a gang of outlaws led by The Utica Kid (Murphy) and Whitey Harbin (Dan Duryea) - Stewart is assigned to see that the next one gets through. So the stage is set for a showdown.

Night Passage

 Night Passage is the Anthony Mann western that never was. Mann was slated to direct Jimmy Stewart once again but pulled out at the last minute. His replacement was James Neilson (a debut director) and he managed to produce a serviceable movie, but fails to properly use the edgy quality that Mann always seemed to extract from his lead.

There are a number of weaknesses present, not least the overuse of Stewart’s accordian playing! The plot tries to pack in too many ideas and never really develops any of them sufficiently; Murphy and Stewart’s battle for the soul of Brandon De Wilde could have been expanded upon. It is shown early on that Stewart’s old flame is now married to his boss, but again nothing much is made of this.

Nevertheless, there are lots of good things here. The cinematography of William H. Daniels shows off the Colorado scenery to breathtaking effect in some beautiful shots and Dimitri Tiomkin provides one of his great trademark scores. I’ve heard it said that his music is sometimes too overpowering and in-your-face but I can’t think of any examples of his work that I didn’t like. Murphy is good in the role of the black sheep; he always seemed to give better performances when playing anti-heroic characters (No Name on the Bullet and John Huston’s The Unforgiven come to mind). There’s also a fine array of familiar support players in Jay C. Flippen, Jack Elam, Olive Carey, Hugh Beaumont and Paul Fix.

The film is available on DVD from Universal and looks very nice indeed in anamorphic scope - I have the R2 but I imagine the R1 uses the same transfer. Recommended.