The Law and Jake Wade

Posted on November 26th, 2011 in 1950s, Westerns, Richard Widmark, John Sturges, Robert Taylor by Colin

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A brief forum discussion the other day on the critical reputation, or lack of it, of John Sturges prompted me to have another look at one of his films that doesn’t usually come in for a great deal of attention. The Law and Jake Wade (1958) was produced in the middle of the director’s most successful period, and the fact that it’s sandwiched between a number of his other better known movies may be partly responsible for its apparent lesser status. On viewing it again, I think it deserves better; it’s beautifully paced, visually arresting, and has a strong central conflict. It’s also one of those sub-90 minute films that I feel suited Sturges so well. The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape have an epic feel to them, both in terms of casting and running time, and although those two movies feature high among my favourites, I’m still of the opinion that Sturges did his best work when the scale was smaller and the material leaner.

It all starts with a jailbreak, Jake Wade (Robert Taylor) riding into a quiet town to set Clint Hollister (Richard Widmark) free. On the surface, it looks like an outlaw doing right by one of his own. As the story progresses though it becomes clear that there’s more to it. Firstly, Wade’s a lawman, a marshal in another town, and a highly respected one at that. Furthermore, there’s a complex history between the two men; they once rode together, initially as brothers in arms and later as partners in crime, before parting on bad terms. The source of antagonism between Wade and Hollister lies in the latter’s belief that his old friend betrayed him and made off with their takings. Wade doesn’t see it that way though - he’d merely grown weary of his lawless existence and, prompted by a tragic event he holds himself responsible for, decided on a clean break. So he buried the loot and forged ahead with a new life. As far as Hollister’s concerned, Wade crossed him, stole his money and ran out. As such, he wants closure (the jailbreak simply wipes off an old debt in his view), namely the money and a reckoning with Wade. To this end, he tracks down Wade, abducts him and his fiancee (Patricia Owens), and uses the woman as leverage to achieve his ends. I’m not giving too much away as all this happens early on in the movie, the bulk of the story being concerned with the long trek to the ghost town where Wade stashed the money. Along the way, we learn more details about both Wade and Hollister and their soured friendship. The background of the two leads, former border raiders in the Civil War who carried on with their mayhem after the surrender, carries some suggestion of the Jesse James story, but that’s as far as the comparison goes. Wade symbolically buried his past with the cash, but Hollister continues to nurse his bitterness and resentment. There’s also a kind of inadequacy needling Hollister, he knows Wade is the better man but he suspects he’s maybe the better gunman too. While he harps on the betrayal that he claims hurt him, what Hollister really yearns for is the opportunity to pit himself against Wade in classic western fashion.

Raking up the past - Richard Widmark & Robert Taylor in The Law and Jake Wade.

Of all John Sturges’ westerns, The Law and Jake Wade comes closest to the look and feel of the Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher films. The majority of the action takes place outside in the desert wilderness (including Lone Pine), featuring a small cast of characters whom we get to know and sympathize with. Wade has a murky past and carries around a deep personal pain while his nemesis, Hollister, has a charming quality that belies his own flaws. And then there’s the secondary characters - the gritty woman who can take the hard going, and the henchmen who are a mixture of the dangerous and the personable. Sturges, as I’ve remarked in the past, was something of an artist with the wide lens and this movie, with its heavy reliance on location work, highlights his skill. The outdoors shots with the peaks of the Sierras forming the backdrop create a sense of vast space, while the interiors (especially when the gang is holed up and under siege in the ghost town) emphasise the stifling and tense atmosphere. Moreover, the Comanche raid on the town is a showcase for his action credentials, where shooting, editing and spatial awareness all play a part in ensuring that the scene remains exciting without losing any of its visual coherence. As for the cast, Richard Widmark was very good in these kinds of roles, his manner suggesting a brittle psychology masked by a cynical sense of humour. This type of villain is always much more interesting than pure, one dimensional evil as there’s usually some sneaking sense of admiration that the viewer feels. In a way, it’s helpful to the hero too, by shouldering some of the burden of satisfying the audience it frees up the lead a little. Robert Taylor was maturing nicely by this time and his experience in westerns meant he had acquired an easy confidence within the genre. His take on Wade is a deceptively laid back one, appearing cool and at ease despite the fact he’s working his wits overtime in an effort to find some way of wriggling out of his predicament. The two most notable supporting turns come from Henry Silva and Robert Middleton, the former as a dangerous psychotic and the latter as the one reasonable and humane member of Widmark’s gang - quite a contrast to his terrifying oaf in Wyler’s The Desperate Hours.

The US DVD of The Law and Jake Wade from Warners isn’t really all that it could be. The image, despite being anamorphic scope, is just too soft and short on detail. It’s not exactly what I’d term a bad transfer but it ought to look better, and the stunning scenery and camerawork on view deserves something better and sharper. The only extra offered is the theatrical trailer - this movie was issued in the Western Classics box shortly before the Archive programme took off and points towards the pared down releases that Warners were moving towards. As such, I now tend to think I should be grateful this film got as good a release as it did, considering how many fine Robert Taylor movies have been shunted into the MOD line. I really like this film; it features good work from both Widmark and Taylor, has a tight script, an even and serious tone, and (thanks to both Sturges and cameraman Robert Surtees) looks wonderful. An easy recommendation, and a strong candidate for reassessment.

As an aside, this blog is 4 years old today. So, a big thank you to all those whose comments, visits and kindness over the years has contributed to its development.

Pickup on South Street

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

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

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

Jean Peters - Pickup on South Street

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

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

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

Kiss of Death

Posted on January 12th, 2011 in 1940s, Film Noir, Richard Widmark, Henry Hathaway, Victor Mature by Colin

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Stool pigeon, squealer, informer - these words all evoke images of weak, low-life types who are willing to spill it all and damn their friends for personal gain. It’s not easy to portray such people without resorting to stereotypes like the tragic, pitiful dupe, or maybe the moral/political crusader. Kiss of Death (1947) is the tale of a man who happily shops his partners in crime, but he comes across as the hero mainly because his actions are guided by his devotion to his family and not greed or some trite ethical principle.

Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) is a career hood who’s spent his life on the wrong side of the law. The opening voiceover narration establishes the fact that Bianco’s record now precludes him from holding down any meaningful job, and thus limits his choices. When a pre-Christmas jewel robbery goes wrong he finds himself on a downward spiral where his already restricted options will be narrowed even more. Initially, Bianco holds firm to the doctrine of honour among thieves and spurns the approaches of Assistant DA D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy). So he takes the jail time and the criminal kudos that comes with it, choosing to leave things up to his crooked lawyer. It’s only when he hears of the suicide of his wife (who’s never seen incidentally) and the subsequent packing off of his two daughters to an orphanage that he undergoes a change of heart. Both his lawyer’s ineffectiveness and the news of the inappropriate behaviour of his former comrades cause him to reassess his position. Striking a deal with D’Angelo gets Bianco out on parole but that’s not the end of it. The law demands more from him and Bianco finds himself drawn deeper into the DA’s plans. The ultimate goal is to secure the conviction of one Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), a ruthless hoodlum with a psychopathic streak. Although Bianco secures the evidence the trial is a failure and Udo walks. It’s now that the real nightmare begins; Bianco has a new wife and a new identity, and all that will surely be swept away when (not if) Udo tracks him down and exacts his revenge. It’s in this second half of the story that the film shows its true noir credentials and moves away from the early melodramatic gangster movie feel. Bianco’s world shrinks to the point where he is eventually left with only one viable course of action.

A new face emerging from the shadows - Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo.

Kiss of Death is a good movie for many reasons, but over the years it’s come to be remembered mainly for the debut of Richard Widmark. The performance is so intense and memorable that it’s hard to believe Widmark had never been on screen before. The fact that this giggling maniac who delights in shoving a crippled woman to her death down a staircase has featured in so many clips through time has maybe drained some of the shock value away. However, there’s no denying the chilling quality that Widmark brings to every scene he’s in - whether it all came down to the actor’s own nervousness or not he has a kind of electric menace that demands you give him your full attention. In contrast, Victor Mature is like a rabbit caught in the headlights when confronted with this raw aggression. That’s not meant as a criticism of Mature’s performance; his role is that of man trapped by his own past and some poor decisions, and he brings off the mounting sense of isolation, desperation and fear that any man in Bianco’s position must surely experience. In the supporting parts, Donlevy is his usual strutting and brusque self as the Assistant DA who’s not averse to bending the law his way in order to achieve his ends. Coleen Gray, who also provides the voiceover, is the new wife who finds herself thrust into a perilous situation - although she must surely have expected that her life with Bianco would be less than smooth given her knowledge of his past - and she’s sweet and sympathetic in the role. Henry Hathaway’s no nonsense direction makes sure that the action moves along, and neatly avoids the kind of sermonising that could easily derail things. He also blends the extensive location work into proceedings and this does lend a touch of realism.

The US release of Kiss of Death on DVD (although it’s out in the UK too) via Fox’s noir line is a typically strong one, the transfer being crisp and clean throughout. There are some nice extras too: a commentary by James Ursini and Alain Silver, a gallery and the trailer. The movie has points to make about the inadequacy (and possibly the corrupt nature) of law enforcement, and the failings of the penal system. However, this stuff has all been done before and it’s therefore refreshing that the abiding memory one takes away from a viewing is that of Widmark’s sniggering nutjob. I think it’s fair to say that it’s this powerhouse performance that elevates the movie above other noir pictures.

Yellow Sky

Posted on September 12th, 2010 in 1940s, Westerns, Richard Widmark, Gregory Peck, William Wellman by Colin

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Ok, so I’ve taken a break from this thing for a while now. I’ve generally found that I need to take a step back from time to time and allow myself a chance to recharge the batteries before starting anew. My last post was on a western, and my latest one is also another oater - for the sake of continuity if nothing else. Yellow Sky (1948) is a typically stylish William Wellman movie that trades on those perennial themes of greed and honour.

The film opens with a bank raid in a small town and concludes, with a quirky twist, in that same town. However, the robbery plays only a small part in the story; it’s the events that it leads to that form the core of the movie. Stretch Dawson (Gregory Peck) is the laconic leader of a band of outlaws who think they’ve just made an easy killing. While their initial getaway appears to have been clean there is a troop of soldiers on their trail, and the outlaw gang find themselves forced onto a barren and punishing expanse of salt flats in an effort to elude capture. From this early stage the first cracks appear in the group. Stretch is the acknowledged boss but his authority begins to be challenged by Lengthy (John Russell) and especially by Dude (Richard Widmark). As these men haul themselves painfully across the hellish landscape they are driven to the very limits of human endurance. Just as they are about to succumb to the effects of exhaustion and dehydration they stumble into the abandoned former mining town of Yellow Sky, and this is the point at which the story becomes most interesting. The old ghost town is not all it seems - for one thing it’s not strictly a ghost town at all. There are two inhabitants, an old half-crazed prospector and his daughter ‘Mike’ (Anne Baxter). Even in their weakened state the outlaws are not so dumb as to believe these two are living there for the good of their health. Putting two and two together, they decide that there’s only one reason anyone would choose to live in a dead town - gold. What remains to be seen is how far each individual is prepared to go in order to satisfy his craving for riches, and whether or not the notion of honour among thieves has any basis in truth. Like all the best westerns, it raises questions about one’s word of honour and, in this case, if that has any value for those who live outside the law.

Now where have I seen this before?

William Wellman’s direction offers a lesson in style, utilizing close-ups, long shots, deep focus, shadows and high contrast. There’s also an especially notable shot down the smoothly rifled barrel of a gun (see pic. above) which foreshadows the famous 007 pre-credits sequences. I’d also like to mention the climactic shootout between Peck, Widmark and Russell that takes place in the gloomy ruins of the town saloon - all the gunplay is unseen by the audience with only the bloody aftermath revealed. The location photography is another positive feature, with the inhospitable Death Valley occupying the first half before the action moves to Lone Pine for the scenes around the titular town. When looking at the characters, the first thing that jumps out is that every single one is known only by a nickname from beginning to end - the sole exceptions being Peck and Baxter, whose full names are revealed to the viewer. Peck handled his leading role competently as the reluctant hero who eventually finds a kind of redemption. John Russell and Richard Widmark make for a worthy couple of adversaries, the former consumed by pure animal lust and the latter with a hunger for wealth and the power to visit retribution on those he feels have slighted him in the past. Widmark in particular is the epitome of villainy, still at that stage in his career when he tended to get typecast as nasty pieces of work for the hero to vanquish. Anne Baxter’s role called for her to be a kind of self-sufficient tomboy who still remains sexually provocative. To her credit, she managed this balancing act and emerged as a fully rounded character that you can believe in. Throughout the film she proves herself the equal of the male cast members and her only concession to the traditional image of femininity comes at the very end when she dons a frivolous little hat that Stretch has brought her as a gift.

The R1 DVD from Fox presents Yellow Sky in a handsome full frame transfer that’s clean and sharp for the most part. Extras on the disc consist of galleries of advertising material and a selection of trailers. The film itself is absorbing and well paced and it was only at the end that I realized how little violence is present, and how even that takes place off screen. This is one of those late-40s westerns that helped usher in the more complex works that dominated the following decade. Recommended.

Warlock

Posted on March 10th, 2010 in 1950s, Westerns, Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Edward Dmytryk, Anthony Quinn by Colin

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Warlock (1959) is a movie that could be approached on a number of levels: as a psychological piece, an early example of revising the myth, an allegory and even as an apology. It’s an exceedingly complex film, which is paradoxically both its strength and its weakness, and also one that remains consistently fascinating. Essentially, this is a variation on the “town tamer” western - almost a sub-genre in itself - but the dense plotting takes it off in a number of directions.

The town of Warlock has become one of those wide open places where the law can only lurk in the shadows, hoping not to draw any unwelcome attention to itself. It has turned into a stamping ground for a band of murderous cowboys, referred to as San Pabloites, who have imposed a reign of terror on the seemingly ineffectual citizens. When one of their number is murdered and the sheriff humiliatingly run out of town the residents decide that the time has come for a positive response. A decision is taken, albeit grudgingly, to hire the services of one Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda) for the position of de facto town marshal. Blaisedell, a thinly disguised version of Wyatt Earp, arrives in town along with his friend Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn) and sets about restoring law and order on his own terms whilst also overseeing the establishment of a gambling house and saloon. The no-holds-barred tactics of the new marshal soon see him in conflict not only with the San Pablo outlaws but also with those who have employed him, and by extension with the newly appointed sheriff. This man is Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), formerly one of the San Pabloites but now a reformed character - and in truth the film is as much about him as anything else. While all this is going on, Morgan is quietly scheming away in the background and manipulating events for his own ends. Sooner or later, a showdown (or more accurately a series of showdowns) will have to occur before matters can be resolved.

Warlock is a film with a whole lot going on, arguably too much for its own good. The parallel with the Wyatt Earp story is an interesting one in that it was, up to that point anyway, much closer to the reality of the situation. Blaisedell’s marshal is no shining hero bent on bringing law to the territory; he’s a professional gunman, ”handy with colts” in his own words, seeking out another pay day and raking in a little extra on the side via his saloon. If the relationship between Blaisedell and Morgan is supposed to hold up a mirror to that between Earp and Doc Holliday then it’s a skewed image that’s presented. Morgan is a crippled soul, both literally and physically, and considerably more dangerous than his partner. So far so good, but Morgan has taken friendship and loyalty to the extreme - to the point that it has twisted itself into a kind of jealous worship. Many commentators have stated that Morgan’s feelings for Blaisedell border on the homoerotic, and I can see where that notion comes from, but I don’t buy into it myself. For one thing, the director Edward Dmytryk said that that wasn’t a correct reading of the film. While Morgan’s obsessiveness towards his friend is clearly off-centre it seems to me more a product of his insecurities and self-loathing than anything else. The other main point of interest is the pivotal figure of Johnny Gannon. It’s hard not to see Dmytryk (one of the Hollywood Ten who became a “friendly witness”) projecting himself onto this character who turns his back on friends, family and associates to follow what he views as his own righteous path. Gannon’s conversion seems justified in a particularly intense scene where he confronts his old comrades in their lair in an attempt at conciliation. This gesture is spurned and results in the kind of brutal sadism that rivals James Stewart’s mutilation in The Man from Laramie.   

Settling scores - Richard Widmark in Warlock.    

This was Edward Dmytryk’s last good film, but that doesn’t mean it’s not without its problems. As I said, Warlock is a movie rich in plot but such richness can bring about a slightly hamstrung end product. The fact that there are so many plot strands, and the necessity to tie them all up, means that the film has three separate climaxes. The effect of this is to lessen the impact of all of them. That, of course, is more a problem with the scripting than Dmytryk’s direction, which is solid enough and contains some well thought out camera angles. The action, when it comes along, is handled competently and the gunfights are all suitably dramatic. The three leads turn in good performances, with Henry Fonda putting a different spin on the part of the lawman to that which he created with John Ford the previous decade. Anthony Quinn keeps things fairly controlled as Morgan, though he does sail perilously close to the kind of scenery chewing that he was prone to lapse into on occasion. Richard Widmark is also especially good as the outlaw-turned-sheriff who visibly grows in stature and confidence as the story progresses. His faltering romance with a worldly Dorothy Malone (playing the fabulously named Lily Dollar) has enough realism to prevent it from merely being the kind of extraneous padding that is often the case.

As far as I can tell, Warlock should be available on DVD pretty much everywhere. Optimum’s UK disc presents the film in a very fine anamorphic scope transfer. It’s generally sharp as a tack throughout and the colours really do justice to Joe MacDonald’s classy cinematography. Unfortunately, there’s not a thing on the disc in the way of extras, but that’s about par for the course with Optimum releases. OK, this film may not be one of the front line classics in the western genre but it does help its development along. The movie’s greatest flaw is trying to pack in too much story, thus throwing itself off balance. However, there are still a lot of positives to take away from it.

  

  

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.

Backlash

Posted on January 20th, 2010 in 1950s, Westerns, Richard Widmark, John Sturges by Colin

Poster

Backlash (1956) is one of those films that seems to have slipped through the cracks. I’m not sure if it would be correct to call it a forgotten film, but it’s certainly not one that you hear mentioned much when the genre’s notables come up for discussion. It fits neatly into the “psychological western” category due to its less than perfect hero and mature themes. At first glance it may appear to be just another tale of a man seeking revenge (not that that’s a bad thing in itself), but as the story develops it becomes clear that this is a film which is going to dig a little deeper.

The opening shots of the film, with a lone rider traversing a rugged landscape to come upon a man filling in a grave, set the tone for the movie and establish the isolation of the two principal characters. The fact that both of them are soon under attack from a gunman perched in the rocks high above underlines the danger of the quest they are about to set out upon. There is also an undercurrent of suspicion and mistrust that will follow them now as neither one can be sure that the other isn’t responsible for setting the ambush. The rider is Karyl Orton (Donna Reed) and the gravedigger is Jim Slater (Richard Widmark); both are in search of the truth, and maybe $60,000 in gold. Years before, five men died at this spot at the hands of the Apache but one other escaped with his life and the gold, leaving his partners to their fate. Slater believes the father he never knew was one of the five, and Karyl believes her estranged husband to be another. With Slater seeking vengeance and closure, and the woman with her eyes on the gold they set out to identify and track down the mysterious sixth man. The manhunt pitches both these characters into one perilous situation after another, from a murderous Apache raid to a range war. Along the way their relationship slowly develops, although it’s no smooth ride for either of them - at one point Slater hauls off and belts Karyl full in the face for putting his life in danger, and she later takes an almost perverse pleasure in sealing up his wounds with a heated blade. By the end of the movie both these people will have to face down their own personal demons and maybe take something of real value away from the experience.

Richard Widmark - digging into past secrets.

Backlash was made at a time when Sturges’ and Widmark’s stars were on the rise. John Sturges had just come off the magnificent Bad Day at Black Rock and would shortly go on to make Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. He was close to his peak at this point and handled just about every aspect of the picture perfectly. Action and suspense blend seamlessly together and the Arizona locations look particularly fine through the wide lens. Widmark was also doing some of his best work around this time and this film must have helped him along nicely. His bony features and distinctive nasal giggle had landed him plenty of villainous roles but they were also ideally suited to playing the kind of damaged men that psychological westerns thrived on. He turns in a great performance here, obsessively digging into the past, searching for the truth and searching for himself - all the while fearing what he might learn yet unable to stop himself. Conversely, Donna Reed’s movie career was soon to end and she was close to moving into a successful run on television. With an impressive list of credits behind her she does well as the feisty, courageous woman-with-a-past. The support cast are solid too with Barton MacLane and an eye-rolling John McIntire standing out especially. A good screenplay is key to the success of any film and having Borden Chase’s name attached never hurt any. It struck me that the episodic structure and the underlying theme bore at least a passing resemblance to the writer’s earlier Winchester 73.

Backlash has had a number of releases on DVD in R2 but the UK disc appears to be the only one with a proper widescreen image - there’s a R4 available but I’m not sure how it’s presented. Optimum’s UK disc has the movie looking very nice in a 2:1 anamorphic transfer, and I’ve been reliably informed that this is indeed the correct ratio for the film. There’s very little damage to be seen and colours and detail all looked excellent to my eyes. Surprisingly, for an Optimum release, the theatrical trailer is included but that’s it as far as extras go. However, when the main feature is there in OAR and looking good then I’m not about to complain. Backlash is a good example of a high quality mid 50s western - one that I rate and recommend.

Cheyenne Autumn

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

Poster

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.

Garden of Evil

Posted on December 5th, 2007 in 1950s, Westerns, Richard Widmark, Henry Hathaway, Gary Cooper by Colin

Look at her! Taking four men like us to a mountain of gold.

So says Richard Widmark’s Fisk, and in so doing he about sums up the plot of the movie. In a nutshell, a desperate woman (Susan Hayward) hires four men (Widmark, Gary Cooper, Cameron Mitchell and Victor Mendoza), who are all hanging around a dead-end Mexican town, to accompany her into the badlands on a mission of mercy; her husband is lying trapped in a mine deep in Apache country. What follows is an adventure tale that ties in some weighty themes such as, loyalty, greed, lust and infidelity. There are also some fairly explicit religious-moral allusions with the only features visible in a lava covered town being the church steeple and the entrance to the gold mine. Why, there’s even a crucifixion!

However, the film is never heavy-going and there is more than enough action to satisfy genre fans. The climactic chase and battle with the Apache is especially well-handled by veteran director Henry Hathaway. In fact, the whole thing moves along at a good pace and, at a little over an hour and a half, never outstays its welcome.

Gary Cooper

I love these early scope films from Fox, and this a great looking picture. Hathaway makes fine use of the widescreen process to show off the Mexican locations; some of the photography on the high mountain pass is simply stunning. The score is a bit of an unexpected one, by Bernard Herrmann no less. Herrmann, being Hitchcock’s composer of choice, is not a name you’d automatically associate with westerns. Nevertheless, the combination of soaring and ominous tones fits the mood of this movie perfectly.

There is, though, one very odd aspect to this film. Now, I won’t claim to be highly knowledgable of American Indians but the Apache we see here are the strangest looking bunch I’ve ever come across - surely the Apache never had Mohican haircuts!

That aside, I highly recommend this movie. How can you not love a western with Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark. I think both men give excellent performances, although I may be a little biased since I’m a huge fan of Coop. He gets to deliver the last line of the film while squinting into the sunset -

The garden of evil - if the earth was made of gold, I guess men would die for a handful of dirt.

Great stuff!