Macao

Posted on May 17th, 2011 in 1950s, Film Noir, Josef von Sternberg, Robert Mitchum by Colin

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If there were such a term as noir-lite then Macao (1952) would have to feature as a prominent example. Taking its lead from the likes of The Big Steal and, more especially, His Kind of Woman, the movie uses some standard characters and situations but drops the harder-edged cynicism and fatalism that one normally expects to find. As a result, we wind up getting a moderately entertaining picture that passes the time but never delivers the kind of sickening gut punch a film noir ought to. The chaotic nature of the production probably contributed significantly to the less than satisfactory final product. However, there are casting issues involved too, but more on that later.

Exotic settings have long been a favourite of Hollywood movies, and the Orient has a special flavour and mystique of its own. Macao, the Portuguese colony, had the kind of murky reputation that suits the world of noir down to the ground. The story revolves around the arrival of three strangers - Nick Cochran (Robert Mitchum), Julie Benson (Jane Russell) and Lawrence C Trumble (William Bendix) - in this corrupt and largely lawless locale. What’s not clear is the reason for these individuals turning up; Julie says she’s looking for a job as a singer, Trumble says he’s a salesman, and Cochran says he’s just hoping to turn a buck whatever way he can. Regardless of what they say, it’s soon apparent that one or more of this ill-matched trio is out to bring down local underworld and gambling kingpin Vince Halloran (Brad Dexter). He’s wanted by Interpol but can’t be touched as long as he remains within Macao’s three mile limit; so a plot involving stolen diamonds is cooked up to appeal to his avaricious nature and lure him far enough out for the authorities to nab him. At the heart of the story is the dynamic between Cochran and Julie - he helps her out of a tight spot and she repays him by lifting his wallet, he gets threatened with deportation and she bails him out, and so on. This cagey romance runs parallel to the business with Halloran, and it seems at times like there are two different movies fighting for dominance. In the end it’s the lighter elements that prevail and the more sinister aspects are only dealt with during the climax. Generally, it’s a schizophrenic kind of picture that fails to deliver adequately through its lack of decisiveness. There are a number of effective scenes that, taken individually, prove satisfying either for their smart-ass comedic dialogue or their tense stylishness. However, they sit uncomfortably side by side and the shift of emphasis is a clumsy affair.

Robert Mitchum, unsure of which way to turn in Macao.

It’s rarely good news when a film experiences a change of director during production, and the further along it is when the switch takes place the greater the damage is likely to be. Josef von Sternberg had already shot a significant amount of the script when on set disagreements led to his departure and replacement by Nicholas Ray. The credits show von Sternberg as the director but it’s hard to be sure how much of the finished movie is down to him; Cochran’s escape from Halloran’s clutches and subsequent pursuit through the docks at night do seem to carry his stamp though. That’s easily the most visually impressive sequence in the whole movie, as Cochran stumbles and slips through a set draped with trawler nets that resemble some massive spider web that’s been spun across the waterfront to ensnare him. Additionally, the scenes in Halloran’s gambling house hark back to von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture, but never achieve anything like the intoxicating decadence of the earlier film. On top of all the other turmoil, the script was undergoing constant revision and being written on the fly, with Mitchum apparently contributing. Mitchum and Russell were essentially playing to type and their chemistry is a large part of what ensures Macao remains watchable. I enjoy seeing William Bendix in anything but he overdoes the mugging in this one and his part suffers as a result. A bigger problem with the casting though concerns Brad Dexter and Gloria Grahame: Dexter is simply too wooden and passive to convince as the threatening figure he’s supposed to be, and Grahame is criminally wasted in an underwritten role that she reportedly didn’t want to play in the first place.

The R1 DVD of Macao from Warners is a good one that is sharp and has strong contrast in the crucial night scenes. If the film itself is a weak one then the disc extras go some way towards making up for that. There’s a nice commentary track with Eddie Muller, Jane Russell and Stanley Rubin. Also, we get a half hour of TCM Private Screenings with Russell and a very ill Mitchum chatting to Robert Osborne. I couldn’t recommend the movie to anyone just getting into film noir as it’s too watered down to be in any way representative. While it’s passably entertaining, it’s realistically more likely to appeal to Mitchum/Russell/von Sternberg (delete as appropriate) completists.

The Wonderful Country

Posted on September 28th, 2010 in 1950s, Westerns, Robert Mitchum by Colin

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I often find myself at a loss to understand why certain films get shunted aside and miss out on the attention that others seem to attract effortlessly. And I’m not talking about trite, derivative time wasters here, I mean quality movies that just get passed over and forgotten. One such case is The Wonderful Country (1959) which quite possibly contains some of Robert Mitchum’s best work. Actually, maybe I’ve answered my own question there; the 50s positively overflow with so many classy westerns it’s hard to keep count of them, and Mitchum was the kind of actor for whom the phrase “undervalued performer” might have been specially coined.

Martin Brady (Mitchum) is a gunman, an enforcer, in the employ of the Castros, a powerful Mexican family. On a rare sojourn across the border to purchase arms for his masters he meets with an accident and finds himself laid up with a broken leg. It’s during this convalescence that we learn a little about Brady’s past, and how he came to be a hired gun south of the border. This is his first time back in the US since his youth, having gone on the run following the killing of his father’s murderer. By this time Brady has become Mexican in all but name, dressing, speaking and acting like those with whom he has chosen to live. The kindness shown him (by the local doctor, a German immigrant, the local commander of the Texas Rangers, and most especially the wife of the garrison commander) causes Brady to reflect on his life thus far. Two things in particular colour his perceptions - the first being the fact that the Ranger captain informs him that he’s no longer considered a wanted man; the second, and more influential, is the attention he draws from Mrs Colton (Julie London), a woman trapped in an unsatisfactory marriage to a stiff-necked soldier. However, life’s never that simple, is it? When an argument with a local roughneck leads to a fatal shooting, Brady finds himself back at square one. There’s a nice piece of filming at this point as the camera zooms in on Brady’s face to catch the moment when he realizes he’s thrown it all away again - great naturalism and reaction from Mitchum. So, he’s left with no choice but to hightail it back to Mexico, the wonderful country, again. But if he thinks he’s left his troubles behind he’s mistaken. His return plunges him into a deadly power struggle between the two Castro brothers that will finally force this former drifter to decide where true allegiance lies. This, the question of where a man really belongs, constitutes the core of the film, and I’m not sure it’s completely resolved by the end. Throughout the movie, those from both sides of the border lay claim to Brady and try to entice him back. Brady himself professes to have no home, and at one point his enraged patron screams at him that he belongs nowhere. Surely that’s not true though - doesn’t every man have the right to find some place that he might reasonably call home? In the end, Brady makes his choice but, as he sets off on foot towards his new life, there’s still a lingering doubt as to whether he’s taken the right path.

Just when he thought he was out - Robert Mitchum in The Wonderful Country.

The Wonderful Country is a real slow burner, beautifully directed by Robert Parrish. The contrast between the US and Mexico is highlighted by the filming styles adopted for the respective locales. While the scenes based in the US are framed tighter and more cramped, as soon as the action moves to Mexico the aspect opens out and thus gives a sense of freedom and space. The location work around Durango not only looks good but also adds to the feeling of realism and grit. Mitchum (who also served as executive producer) found in Martin Brady a role that fitted him like a glove. The character of Brady is a quiet, introspective one - an essentially lonely man (as I think all the great western heroes are) trying to find his place in the world. Mitchum was often, and to an extent still is, unfairly criticized for his apparent non-acting, but he was a master of underplaying and everything is there in the eyes and face. Brady isn’t a character given to showing off or expansiveness, and Mitchum subtly conveys all of his melancholy and uncertainty. I never thought Julie London was anything exceptional as an actress and she doesn’t really have much to do here beyond looking sultry and hungry, but she carries that off satisfactorily. Gary Merrill, as her husband, has a pretty one dimensional part as the cold fish army commander. Pedro Armendariz, on the other hand, gets one of the choice roles as Cipriano Castro, the initially sympathetic brother. In his few scenes he brings a marvellous urbanity to his part that seems at odds with his true ruthless nature. It’s also worth mentioning that Charles McGraw appears in what amounts to little more than a cameo role - a pity since it’s always a pleasure to see him rasping and swaggering his way through any film. 

To the best of my knowledge, The Wonderful Country has only had two releases on DVD, one in Spain and one in Australia. I once owned the Australian disc but binned it, from memory it was a drained and blurry P&S mess. The Spanish disc from Suevia, however, presents the film quite nicely. The transfer is widescreen 1.66:1, though unfortunately not anamorphic. There isn’t any noticeable damage, colours are generally very good, and the image is sharp except for a very few shots. Oh, and subtitles are not forced on the English track. All in all, this release is acceptable and, bearing in mind this is a MGM/UA property, probably as good as the film is going to look on DVD in the foreseeable future. I’d rate this movie very highly as one of the top westerns of the 50s - in other words, we’re looking at a top-flight production here.

El Dorado

Posted on June 5th, 2010 in 1960s, Westerns, Howard Hawks, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne by Colin

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A while back I mentioned directors remaking their own movies, citing Hitchcock and Walsh at the time. However, they’re not the only ones; Howard Hawks reworked the same material that he originally used for Rio Bravo no less than three times. In this case, I think the law of gradually diminishing returns applies - although I’m aware that there are those who might disagree. Hawks’ second trip to the well resulted in El Dorado (1966), a film that improved on its predecessor in one or two ways but ultimately remains a less satisfying work. Ok, it’s not a straight remake of Rio Bravo since it opens the story up a little more in terms of people and locations but it does use the same core situation and characters. There’s the tough professional, the drunk, the old coot and the green kid all holed up in a dingy jailhouse and under siege.

Cole Thornton (John Wayne) is a professional gunman who hires his skills out to the highest bidder. After accepting an invitation from one of the parties involved in a range war he discovers that the job would mean facing off against an old friend. Sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum) is the lawman caught between the feuding factions, and it’s his presence that dissuades Thornton from signing any contract. However, before Thornton can take his leave an accidental shooting leads to an ambush that results in his getting a bullet lodged perilously close to his spine. When he returns some months later he finds that Harrah has taken to the bottle in the wake of an ill-judged love affair. To make matters worse, the nearly incapacitated sheriff is in no position to cope with the ongoing range war that’s about to come to a head. Therefore, it’s left to Thornton to take charge of a rapidly deteriorating situation provoked by an attempted murder and the subsequent arrest of one of the feud’s main players. Up to this point the plot has its own reasonably unique slant. However, once Thornton, Harrah et al find themselves barricaded in the jail it’s Rio Bravo all over again. Where the original had a gentle humour, a gradually built sense of camaraderie and a frisson of sexual tension (thanks to Angie Dickinson), El Dorado rushes things a bit and lays the humour on too thick. Actually, it’s the comedic elements that do the most damage in my opinion. Much of this is based around the character of Mississippi (James Caan) - in particular, his incompetence around firearms and his questionable taste in hats. What’s worse, though, is a cartoonish fight between Thornton and a drunken Harrah that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Three Stooges short. The climax is also disappointing, the pyrotechnics of Rio Bravo being replaced with a contrived showdown that’s not much more than a damp squib.

Even legends need a little support sometimes - John Wayne & Robert Mitchum in El Dorado

In a sense, if you’ve seen one Howard Hawks picture you’ve seen them all. The same themes crop up again and again, namely professionalism and loyalty to one’s comrades. El Dorado is no exception in this respect, we have the tight knit group defying the odds and getting moral support from no-nonsense women. However, there’s a certain flatness to El Dorado, both in the visuals and the reworking of a tried and tested story. The areas where it does score over Rio Bravo are a few of the performances. I can’t honestly fault Dean Martin’s Dude, but Mitchum does bring more weight to his take on the broken down drunk if only because he’s Robert Mitchum. The biggest improvement is the casting of James Caan as the young man taking his first steps in the presence of the big boys. Although the forced jokiness of his character does tend to grate a little after a while he is certainly an actor, something that couldn’t be said for Ricky Nelson. Wayne, of course, is Wayne and it matters not a jot whether he’s playing the sheriff or the hired hand, his star quality ensures that he dominates proceedings. It is interesting to note though that the plot device concerning the bullet in his back was a convenient way to make allowances for the effects of the passage of time and the major health problems he had endured. As for the others, let’s just say that Arthur Hunnicutt, Charlene Holt and Ed Asner were no match for Walter Brennan, Angie Dickinson and Claude Akins. While I’m drawing comparisons, I might just add that Nelson Riddle’s score isn’t a patch on Tiomkin’s - although the title song played over Olaf Wieghorst’s paintings is very memorable.

El Dorado got a 2-disc release not long ago in the US as part of Paramount’s Centennial Collection. I never bothered to pick that one up so I can’t comment on the picture quality, but I do know it offered a variety of extras. The old UK R2 that I have presents the film 1.78:1 anamorphic and it’s not a bad transfer. The image could, I suppose, be a little sharper but there’s really not much to complain about. Image quality aside, the big difference between the old and new releases relates to bonus features, with the earlier disc boasting nothing but a theatrical trailer. Reading back through this, I might seem a little hard on El Dorado. The truth is it’s not at all a bad western and makes for entertaining viewing - the problem is that it’s damned near impossible not to compare it to Rio Bravo, and that’s where it comes up short.

Where Danger Lives

Posted on November 11th, 2008 in 1950s, Film Noir, John Farrow, Robert Mitchum by Colin

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The films produced at RKO under the stewardship of Howard Hughes were a mixed bag to say the least; the billionaire’s’s involvement lending a crass, juvenile quality to more than one movie. While he led the once great studio along the path to bankruptcy and oblivion, he also introduced the cinema-going public to number of new starlets such as Jane Russell and Faith Domergue. Miss Domergue never made that many memorable pictures, save for Where Danger Lives, This Island Earth and It Came from Beneath the Sea. Of those three, Where Danger Lives (1950) has the slightly odd distinction of presenting her with her best role while also being the least known. In fact, this is a fine movie all round with stylish direction by noir stalwart John Farrow, a powerful lead performance by Robert Mitchum, moody cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca, and a Charles Bennett script.

At first glance the film may seem like a standard lovers-on-the-run yarn, but that’s merely the framing device for a tale of obsessive love, deception and madness. Jeff Cameron (Robert Mitchum) is introduced as an overworked but dedicated doctor who, at the end of his shift, is called upon to treat an attempted suicide. He is immediately attracted to the patient, Margo (Faith Domergue), and soon embarks on an affair. The immediate effect of this is that Cameron develops a callous disregard for both his job and his devoted sweetheart, played by director’s wife Maureen O’Sullivan. The whole point of the story is how lust can blind a man to reality and allow him to be deceived and manipulated. The film is packed with lies and liars and it seems that just about everyone is prepared to bend the truth to suit their own agenda, right down to ambulance drivers and small town doctors. When Cameron receives a blow on the head in a struggle, the resulting concussion gradually impairs his judgement and allows him to be more easily duped. In a marvellously surreal passage, the fleeing couple arrive in a town where everyone is bearded and dressed in western apparel. For a moment it looks as though the action has taken a detour into the Twilight Zone, until it is revealed that Mitchum and Domergue have stumbled into a local festival. The idea of nobody being quite what they appear is nicely highlighted when a local boy draws facial hair onto a photograph of Domergue, while muttering that everyone has to have a beard. From first to last, the movie concentrates on shifting identities and false perceptions.  

Dazed & Confused - Robert Mitchum gropes his way towards the truth.

Robert Mitchum was an old hand at playing noir anti-heroes and the role of Jeff Cameron offers him the opportunity to flex his acting muscles. He goes from being an upstanding professional at the beginning of the film to a shambling brain damaged wreck of a man by the climax. In the hands of a lesser actor the part could easily have descended into eye-rolling histrionics, but Mitchum’s deceptively lazy style ensures that credibility is maintained as his character’s mental state deteriorates and he floats between clarity and confusion. Faith Domergue’s Margo is a fine femme fatale in the classic mould. Her performance isn’t as controlled as Mitchum’s but she still manages to be convincing. It’s obvious from the start that there’s something not quite right about Margo, but you can’t really put your finger on what. Claude Rains appears in a small but significant part, and adds some real class to proceedings; in his few minutes of screen time he shows us another psychologically twisted character, and his playing is every bit the equal of that of his co-stars. John Farrow always seemed comfortable in noir territory, and does a good job of holding together a story that could have easily spun out of control. Farrow is ably assisted by his director of photography Nicholas Musuraca, whose camera does good things with the bleak desert backdrops and shadowy small towns that dominate the film.

Where Danger Lives comes to DVD, paired on disc with Tension, from Warners in R1 via their fourth noir set. It’s a fine, clean transfer which shows Musuraca’s excellent black and white photography at its best. The film comes with a trailer and a short featurette on the movie. This is a  film that I wasn’t at all familiar with until I picked up the box set. I can’t think why it has been such an obscure and hard to see movie since I’d rate it as an excellent example of classic era noir. Highly recommended.

Tombstone

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No. Make no mistake; it’s not revenge he’s after…it’s a reckoning.

Is Tombstone the best western of recent years? Perhaps not, but it must surely rank as one of the most entertaining. Eastwood’s Unforgiven may have more things to say, it’s themes may run deeper, but despite its undeniable quality it is nowhere near as much fun as Tombstone. When one sets about telling a story that has already been committed to celluloid as many times as this one has, it’s no mean feat to produce something which avoids staleness. The trick was to make a film that stayed closer to the historical facts than any previous effort, yet compress it and ensure that the pacing didn’t suffer. Tombstone manages to maintain this fine balance: the facts are mostly adhered to, but some are altered for dramatic effect and, crucially, the script never allows itself to getbogged down in tedious minutiae.

The title of the film makes it plain that it’s going to deal with the portion of Wyatt Earp’s life spent in the town of Tombstone, and the events surrounding it. Of course references are made to the lives and exploits of the Earps in the years preceding the story but they’re never labored, serving only to clarify the reputation of Wyatt. The opening of the film is a short montage of black and white shots with a voiceover by Robert Mitchum to establish time and place. This little sequence ends with the famous shot from The Great Train Robbery (1903), where a gun is fired straight at the audience. In truth, this is only one of many homages paid to the classic westerns of years gone by, the film is littered with them. From there on, it’s pure blood and thunder stuff as we get our first glimpse of the villains of the piece, the Cowboys, riding into a Mexican pueblo to massacre a wedding party as an act of vengence. The real Cowboys were a band of outlaws who came together from time to time to engage in various criminal acts. The movie, in order to heighten the drama, gives the impression that they were a closely knit group - a sort of western prototype for the mafia. The Earps, on the other hand, are shown to be former lawmen (except the younger Morgan) who have no interest in a confrontation, preferring to spend their time building up their finances via gambling. Some of their less savoury activities, such as their alleged involvement in prostitution, are glossed over, although Ike Clanton (Stephen Lang) frequently refers to them as pimps. They only find themselves drawn into conflict with the Cowboys after the killing of town marshal Fred White (Harry Carey Jnr) forces their hand. As a result, the situation soon deteriorates rapidly, culminating in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the Cowboys’ retribution, and Wyatt’s subsequent vendetta.

Hell's coming with me - Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp. 

The centrepiece is undoubtedly the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and this is filmed with much more attention to the real details than ever before. The movie takes pains to show who shot who, when, where and how. Even the dialogue sticks close to what has been recorded, with Wyatt (Kurt Russell) telling Ike to either get to fighting or go (he went) and Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) delivering the memorable “You’re a daisy if you do” before dispatching Frank McLaury. It’s a well filmed scene which captures not only the spontaneous excitement but also the nervy disorganisation of the event. The aftermath of this was a lot of legal shenanigans before the Cowboys took bloody revenge on the Earps. The movie skips over the legal wrangling completely and condenses the Cowboys’ attack into one night of violence. While this may be taking liberties with the facts, it helps the film immeasurably by ensuring the narrative keeps moving. The greatest divergence from the truth takes place during the depiction of the vendetta. There were nowhere near as many people killed as the movie suggests, although the entertainment value would have been greatly reduced if this had been insisted on. Even so, the film still manages to include some genuine happenings here, such as Wyatt’s shotgun duel with Curly Bill (Powers Boothe) and the stopover at the ranch of Arizona cattleman Henry Hooker (Charlton Heston).

I'm your huckleberry - Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday.

The acting is dominated by Kurt Russell as Wyatt, Val Kilmer as Doc, and Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo. These three performances are central to the success of the movie and they’re so good it’s hard to imagine anyone else filling the roles. Russell plays Earp as a cold pragmatist driven to action only by family loyalty, and an emotional icicle who’s gradually thawed out by Dana Delany’s slightly goofy but attractive actress. Michael Biehn’s Ringo is a study in madness and evil, alternately killing priests, quoting in latin, and screaming at the Earps that he wants their blood and souls. The real standout, though, is Val Kilmer as the screen’s definitive Doc Holliday. It is unlikely that Kilmer will ever play a better part (he’s certainly done nothing approaching it since) than the doomed lunger. He gets all the best lines and delivers them with such fatalistic charm that you can’t help liking him. The script also offers him a great exit; if that deathbed scene doesn’t bring a tear to your eye then you’ve obviously mislaid your heart somewhere. It’s nice to see a nod to the classic westerns with the casting of Harry Carey Jnr and Charlton Heston, and Robert Mitchum’s narration - Mitchum was to have played Old Man Clanton but a back injury on the first day of filming put paid to that. A few other references to the movies of the past come with Dana Delany singing Red River Valley (one of John Ford’s favorites) and Russell channelling the spirit of Henry Fonda as he reclines on the boardwalk with his heels on the hitching post before marching off to the O.K. Corral and immortality.

The only DVD of this film worth owning is the R1 Director’s Cut. The anamorphic scope transfer is generally good, though there is visible edge enhancement. The 2-disc set has a number of extras including a commentary from director George P. Cosmatos and, most importantly, it is the only complete version of the film. The added scenes, while not of huge significance, do help fill in a few gaps in the narrative. Although Tombstone will probably never attain the status of one of the great westerns I still get an enormous kick out of it every time I see it.