Violent Saturday

Posted on November 2nd, 2011 in 1950s, Mystery/Thriller, Lee Marvin, Victor Mature, Richard Fleischer by Colin

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Stories about heists that invariably go wrong somewhere along the line have a kind of evergreen quality about them. I don’t think it’s anything as simple as the need to see the moral balance restored that’s the attraction, instead it’s more a kind of perverse wish fulfillment for all of us living in an imperfect world to witness even the most meticulous plans of smart guys turn pear shaped. Violent Saturday (1955) is one such movie, detailing the build-up, execution and aftermath of a bank robbery in a small town. It’s also a film which takes its time creating expectations about certain characters, only to show that those assumptions can frequently be misleading.

Essentially this is a film of two halves. The opening section is something of a darkly soapy melodrama, wherein the principal characters, and their roles in the community, are all established. The two people that are focused on most are Boyd Fairchild (Richard Egan), the heir to the local copper mining facility, and the mine foreman Shelley Martin (Victor Mature). These men are living in the brave new world of a booming 50’s America, all shining, chrome-laden automobiles and homes filled with the latest modern conveniences. Yet, despite the trappings of material success that surround them neither man is particularly at ease with himself. Fairchild is drinking too much in an attempt to blot out the inferiority complex that comes with being the son of a self-made millionaire, and keep his mind off the numerous affairs his wife has indulged in. Martin, on the other hand, is carrying round an entirely different set of baggage; his marriage is a happy one and his success is all of his own making but he’s burdened by a sense of guilt for not having seen active service in the war, a feeling of inadequacy compounded by his failure to appear heroic in the eyes of his young son. Additionally, we’re afforded glimpses into the lives of a few of the town’s other citizens - a financially pressed librarian driven to petty larceny, and the outwardly prim but repressed and voyeuristic bank manager. While these various strands of small town life are being laid before us, three strangers weave their way among them. These men (Stephen McNally, Lee Marvin and J Carrol Naish) are career criminals, come to a town they see as a soft touch to raid the bank. As the citizens go about their daily lives and try to cope with their personal issues, the three newcomers calmly and deliberately plan their heist. The second part of the movie, and the most gripping, sees the paths of all the disparate characters converge on a Saturday afternoon in an explosion of physical and emotional violence.

Something for the weekend - Lee Marvin in Violent Saturday.

Director Richard Fleischer’s career was on an upward curve at the time Violent Saturday was made; he’d come off making a number of interesting noir movies, two of which (Armored Car Robbery & The Narrow Margin) are especially noteworthy. While I don’t believe Violent Saturday is film noir, it does display some of the style/genre’s sensibilities - the doomed robbers and the facade of respectability concealing a darker reality. The structure of the film is clearly designed to provide a back story for the characters and flesh them out, thus heightening the impact of the abrupt intrusion of violence into their lives. As far as that goes it’s only partially successful; the introduction of the librarian and the bank manager has a dramatic potential that’s never fully explored, and in the former’s case the the plot leaves her fate dangling and neglected. The banker (Tommy Noonan) does at least play a pivotal role, albeit in a negative way. His creepy passivity undergoes a transformation in the course of the heist and he finally resolves to take some positive action in his life. It’s unfortunate, however, that his new found steel acts as the catalyst for the bloodletting that follows. Victor Mature was well cast in the role of the family man dogged by the shadow of cowardice. There was always an undercurrent of melancholy and sensitivity about him, and the film puts that to good use. He too experiences a reversal of fortune, where adversity reveals an inner strength and toughness whose existence he doubted. Having said that, the message that’s ultimately conveyed by his actions, and the reactions of others to them, isn’t one that sits entirely comfortably with me. Of the three criminals, both McNally and Naish perform competently without ever being particularly memorable. The real star is Lee Marvin. Dapper in appearance and ruthless in behaviour, he gets the better lines and makes the most of them. It says a lot for Marvin’s talents that he could take what was basically a minor supporting role and deliver the most telling performance in the whole movie. It’s also worth mentioning that Ernest Borgnine has a small, and incongruous, part as an Amish farmer who finds himself and his family drawn into the turbulent events.

To date, Violent Saturday has had three releases on DVD (in Spain, the US and Australia), none of which appear ideal. All of these discs offer the film a non-anamorphic scope transfer. The Spanish release is via Fox/Impulso and, the letterboxing aside, sees the movie looking quite nice. The lack of anamorphic enhancement does take away from the overall sharpness of the image but, on the plus side, the colours look strong and true, and the print doesn’t suffer from any significant damage. Extras, as on the majority of Fox/Impulso titles, consist of some text-based material on cast and crew along with a gallery. Subtitles on the English track can of course be disabled via the menu. The movie itself is a solid crime drama that builds nicely to a suspenseful and action-filled conclusion. It’s not quite top flight material, but it’s not too far off either. I’d rate it as a smoothly directed piece of entertainment that could have used a little extra polish on the script.

Bad Day at Black Rock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seven Men from Now

Posted on November 7th, 2009 in 1950s, Westerns, Budd Boetticher, Randolph Scott, Lee Marvin by Colin

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I was just thinking the other day that it will soon be close to a year since I got my hands on Sony’s superlative set of Boetticher/Scott westerns. Those movies were at the very top of my most wanted list for so long, and it still gives me great pleasure to know that I can now pick them off my shelves and enjoy them any time I please. With that thought in mind, I decided to give Seven Men from Now (1956) another view. This film is of course not officially part of the Ranown group of titles, but it was the first to bring together Scott, Boetticher and Kennedy - so it is the movie that kicked off that cycle and it’s also the template for what was to follow.

As soon as the title credits have rolled the film immediately kicks into gear. Out of the darkness, and a violent storm, comes the lone figure of a man making his way towards the shelter of a nearby cave. It’s already occupied by two vaguely uneasy men, but they still offer the stranger a cup of coffee and a seat by the fire. A stilted conversation follows, but when a killing in the town of Silver Springs is brought up something snaps. The camera cuts away, gunfire is heard, and only one man will ride off. That man is Ben Stride (Randolph Scott), former sheriff of the aforementioned town and now a driven manhunter. Seven men robbed the Wells Fargo office in Silver Springs, killing Stride’s wife in the process. Now only five are left alive, and Stride spends the remainder of the movie blazing a trail across Arizona in his quest for vengeance. Along the way he runs into a couple of easterners, headed for California and a new life. The couple are Annie Greer (Gail Russell) and her less than capable husband John (Walter Reed). Stride’s inherent decency means that he can’t abandon these two greenhorns to their fate in hostile country, so he rides with them part of the way. By the time they reach a deserted relay station, the last important figure is introduced. This is Masters (Lee Marvin), an man of dubious character who Stride has had occasion to lock up in the past. However, Masters appears to bear him no ill will and makes it clear that his only interest is in finding the gold that was stolen from Silver Springs. When this oddly matched group sets out again the tensions begin to rise, and it seems only a matter of time before Stride and Masters will square off.

Randolph Scott in a tight spot in Seven Men from Now

As I said in my introduction, Seven Men from Now was the seed from which the Ranown westerns were to grow. Just about every character, theme and situation would be revisited and honed to near perfection over the course of the next four years. Scott is the classical loner, haunted by the demons of his past and desperate to make up for the character flaws and inadequacies that brought him to his present state. He can be hard and ruthless when the circumstances demand but still retains a sensitivity to those who are dependent on him. Gail Russell was given a shot at a comeback with the reasonably meaty role of a woman who married a weak and ineffectual man but will stick by him for all that. Miss Russell’s story was a tragic one; were it not for a combination of insecurity and alcoholism she might have achieved much more than her appallingly short life permitted. Nevertheless, she plays her part perfectly here and it’s almost as if she was able to channel all the dissatisfaction with her own life into Annie Greer. It has to be said that Walter Reed is pretty colourless as the husband, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing when you’re looking to play a weak willed and essentially passive character. Lee Marvin, on the other hand, is all swaggering bravado and insidious charm. His nonchalant, sneering dandy with the long, green scarf and twin pistols is the perfect counterbalance to Scott’s underplaying. I’d say he actually steals the picture as he dominates every scene he’s in - the real standouts being his taunting provocation of Scott, Reed and Russell in the confines of a storm battered wagon, and the final one on one duel amid the barren rocks of Lone Pine.

Boetticher and Kennedy revisited this premise again and again in their movies: the small isolated group comprised of the obsessive avenger, the strong yet vulnerable woman, the expendable sidekicks and the villain that you half admire. Anyone familiar with Kennedy’s scripts will easily recognise the recurring dialogue, but the beauty of it is that it’s such iconic stuff it never actually sounds cliched. Boetticher’s direction here is first rate, making the most of the familiar Lone Pine locations - the bulk of the action in Seven Men from Now takes place outdoors and that’s a real blessing in any of his movies. There’s the usual mix of telling close-ups interspersed with glorious wide shots. The climax among the labyrinthine boulders creates a great sense of claustrophobia and allows for some marvellously framed images.

Paramount did western fans a real favour when they put Seven Men from Now out on a DVD a few years back. The R1 disc (I’m going to assume the R2 replicates it) is an excellent anamorphic transfer that I couldn’t fault. In addition to the main feature, there’s a boatload of great extras with the commentary track by Jim Kitses and the documentary Budd Boetticher - An American Original being especially worthy of mention. Seven Men from Now stands as a first class western on its own, but what makes it even more special is the knowledge that Boetticher, Scott and Kennedy would go on to produce still classier material in a very short space of time. If you haven’t seen this film then you really owe it to yourself to put that situation right as soon as possible - I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Seminole

Posted on September 24th, 2008 in 1950s, Westerns, Budd Boetticher, Rock Hudson, Lee Marvin, Anthony Quinn by Colin

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Budd Boetticher is celebrated, and rightly so, for the seven westerns he made with Randolph Scott in the late 50s. Seminole was produced just a few years before those collaborations and, while it’s a satisfying enough picture, it’s not quite up there with his best. One could, I suppose, quibble about its credentials as a western due to the setting (Florida) and the time period (1835) but I feel it’s as near as makes no difference.

The story, most of which is recounted in a long flashback sequence, follows the newly appointed Lt. Caldwell (Rock Hudson) who is travelling back to his birthplace in Florida to take up a position at Fort King. His arrival coincides with the beginnings of an uprising among the Seminole, provoked by a government plan to uproot the tribe and move them west to prevent their presence slowing down the nation’s expansion. Within this framing story there’s further conflict due to the revelation that Caldwell’s boyhood friend, the half breed Osceola (Anthony Quinn), is not only the chief of the Seminole but is also vying for the affections of his sweetheart Revere Muldoon (Barbara Hale). While Revere shuttles back and forth in the role of intermediary between the Seminole and the army, a plan is set in motion by the fort’s commander, Major Degan (Richard Carlson), to strike at the enemy in their Everglades homeland and thus preempt any further threat.

The film raises a number of issues, only a few of which are fully explored. The main conflict is the internal struggle which Caldwell experiences between his loyalty to the army and his inherent sympathy for the Seminole he has known all his life. This leads to his being suspected of treachery by his superiors and his eventual court martial. The film tries hard to show the Seminloe in a positive light (mostly due to the performance of Anthony Quinn) but generally takes the middle way, since the army is portrayed as being reasonably even-handed with the exception of the uptight martinet Major Degan. This leads to a bit of a pat, upbeat ending. Much stronger is the middle section where Degan leads his troop on a disastrous march through the steamy swamps with a huge cannon in tow, all the while insisting they keep their tunics buttoned to the collar as per the regulations. One of the more interesting themes, and the film really only touches on it, is that of miscegenation. It is quite clear that Revere has been involved in a long-term relationship with Osceola but, after a brief mention by the chief of how white society would frown on this, she quite happily drops him and contents herself with a future by Caldwell’s side.

Seminole - an early role for Lee Marvin

Rock Hudson is just about adequate in his role as the new officer forced to make war on his one time friend but his acting is a little too wooden to do justice to a part which requires him to experience a good deal of inner turmoil. Anthony Quinn fares better as the reluctant war chief whose living in both the white and Seminole cultures has afforded him an understanding of both. However, the role, as written, calls for a little too much nobility on his part and so weakens the chracter. Richard Carlson’s Degan is a very one dimensional portrayal which consists of much manic ranting and petty spitefulness, still he makes for a good hissable villain. As for Barbara Hale, she hasn’t a lot to do except act as a plot device and provide  some decoration. Lee Marvin shows up in one of his small early parts as Sergeant Magruder and adds a touch of class to the proceedings, as he always did. Boetticher directs the whole thing at his trademark brisk pace, and does his best work when he moves out from the confines of the fort into the swamp scenes and the ensuing battle at the Seminole camp. As I said earlier, his finest work would come a few years later but Seminole remains an entertaining little piece.

Now for the DVD. Seminole is available in R2 in the UK from Optimum and the transfer can best be described as weak. The picture is very soft and muddy throughout, and the colours are extremely faded - a real shame since this is a movie that would benefit enormously from strong, vibrant colours. The only bonus included is the theatrical trailer. There are editions of the film available from France and Germany but I have no idea if they look any better. All told, I would recommend the film - pity about the DVD.

Attack

Posted on February 14th, 2008 in 1950s, War, Robert Aldrich, Lee Marvin, Jack Palance by Colin

Robert Aldrich made one of most people’s favorite war movies in The Dirty Dozen. In fact he made all kinds of great movies encompassing almost every genre. By 1956 he had turned out a handful of fine pictures, including Kiss Me Deadly and Vera Cruz. That year he turned his hand to the war movie and came up with the superior and intense Attack. This came at a time when the war film was transitioning from the flag-waving efforts of the forties to more bitter and realistic portrayals of combat.

The story focuses on the strains within a WWII company of US soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge. The company is under the command of Capt. Cooney (Eddie Albert), a privileged man who joined the army to satisfy the wishes of his father. However, Cooney is an undisguised coward whose position only remains tenable due to his friendship with Col. Bartlett (Lee Marvin), the battalion commander. The situation in the company has reached crisis point after Cooney’s inaction has caused the death of a squad of Lt. Costa’s (Jack Palance) men. When orders come through that a small town must be taken and held, Costa delivers an ultimatum to his superior - if he fouls up again then Costa will kill him.

Jack Palance reaches the breaking point

The film was adapted from a stage play and, as is often the case, is a real actor’s movie. Both Palance and Albert hold centre stage and the focus is on the duel between these two. Palance’s performance is raw and painful to watch as his endurance is fully tested. The latter part of the movie, when betrayal and the pointless slaughter drive him to the edge of reason, is something to behold. Eddie Albert gives him a good run for his money, forcing the viewer to both pity and despise Capt. Cooney. Lee Marvin’s colonel is at once cunning, ambitious, cynical, and the absolute epitome of cool machismo. Of the support cast, Buddy Ebson, Robert Strauss and Richard Jaeckel all give entertaining turns.

This is one of the finest war movies of the fifties and bears comparison to the best of Sam Fuller. It is probably one of Aldrich’s least known films but deserves a much wider recognition. It is on DVD in R1 and R2 from MGM and the full screen image looks very good. Being an MGM release the only supplement is a trailer. However, a movie as good as this should have a place in any self-respecting war collection.