Diplomatic Courier

Posted on April 18th, 2011 in 1950s, Mystery/Thriller, Henry Hathaway, Tyrone Power by Colin

Poster

In the past I’ve done a few write-ups on those thrillers that take advantage of the devastated world of post-war Europe. The uncertainty evoked by time and place, the dreams of a better future coupled with the knowledge that the dangers of the past are no further away than a glance over the shoulder, is a strong foundation on which to build tales of intrigue and deception. In the late 40s and early 50s, as the chill of the Cold War was spreading, there was an abundance of such movies. I think the appeal of these pictures, despite the patriotic trappings required by the contemporary political climate and the inevitable loss of immediacy with the passage of time, lies in their ability to tune into the despair and disillusionment of those displaced and damaged by war and the subsequent carving up of a continent. Diplomatic Courier (1952) is one of the lesser known examples of this sub-genre, despite its boasting a strong cast. This film is not without its flaws but, taken as a whole, it remains a slick and atmospheric espionage thriller.

It starts off with one of those voice-of-God narrations, extolling the virtues of dedicated government agencies, which I tend to find irritating but quickly settles down to telling the story in a more traditional way. In short, a coded document originating in Romania needs to be passed to a courier in Salzburg for transportation back to the US. Sounds simple enough in itself, and thus our courier, Mike Kells (Tyrone Power), is promptly dispatched to do the business. Of course, things don’t quite run according to plan and Kells’ contact winds up dead on the railway line outside the city, without having completed the exchange. The circumstances leading to the murder aren’t clear as they were preceded by a series of cat and mouse shenanigans aboard the train involving a couple of heavies (one of whom is Charles Bronson in a blink and you miss him role) and an unidentified blonde. Kells now finds himself high and dry, and his only lead is the blonde, a Czech refugee called Janine Betki (Hildegard Knef), on her way to Trieste. His only option is to travel to the Italian city, track down Janine, and hope that she can lead him to the missing document. Again, the errand seems uncomplicated yet Trieste is a nest of spies and assassins, with danger lurking and ready to pounce within its ruins and darkened courtyards. Trying to run down one female in an unfamiliar and hostile locale ought to be problem enough, but Kells faces the added complication dealing with the attentions of an amorous American pleasure seeker, Joan Ross (Patricia Neal), who he met after falling asleep on her mink clad shoulder en route to Salzburg. What emerges is that both these women have a central role to play in the mystery, the question though is which one, if either, can be trusted.

Chasing shadows - Tyrone Power and Karl Malden in Diplomatic Courier.

The whole thing moves along at a brisk pace under Henry Hathaway’s direction, but I do feel the script could have used some tightening to cut down on the kind of disposable dialogue that just serves to slow the momentum. Also, there are a few too many convenient arrivals at crucial moments. Having said that, Hathaway, aided by cameraman Lucien Ballard, creates some nice images and takes full advantage of the European locations. The best scenes are those with Kells blundering around Trieste following up clues that frequently leave him even more confused than ever. By this time, Tyrone Power had left his swashbuckling days behind him and was exploring more varied roles. I thought he was pretty good as the messenger boy thrown in at the deep end and unsure of who’s really on his side, apart from a faithful but hyperactive Karl Malden. Both Patricia Neal and Hildegard Knef gave strong but very different performances - the former oozing a kind of feline sexuality, while the latter tapped into a credible blend of vulnerability and grit. Of the two, I’d say Knef produced the the better work, probably due to her character benefiting form greater depth. I mentioned earlier a fleeting appearance by Charles Bronson, and it’s also worth pointing out that’s there’s a small part for Lee Marvin in there too.

Diplomatic Courier is available on DVD from Fox in Spain - the only release of the movie anywhere that I know of - in a pretty good edition. The print is quite clean and crisp, but there is a fair bit of grain in evidence early on. Actually, I can’t work out if it’s genuine film grain or some kind of digital noise; I have a hunch it’s the latter but I’m not expert enough to call it for sure one way or the other. Whatever, it fades after the first ten minutes or so. The Spanish subs are removable via the set up menu, and the extras are limited to a gallery and some text based cast and crew info. This was my first viewing of the film, a total blind buy, and I enjoyed it a lot. I did have some issues with the script, but the acting is good overall and the direction and location photography are very stylish. Yet another picture that deserves a wider audience.

Rawhide

Posted on January 18th, 2009 in 1950s, Westerns, Henry Hathaway, Tyrone Power by Colin

Poster

No, we’re not talking about the TV series featuring Clint Eastwood and Frankie Laine’s memorable theme song. This is Henry Hathaway’s claustrophobic western from 1951 with Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward. It’s one of those pictures that seems to have fallen through the cracks and is rarely talked about. I think the reason Rawhide doesn’t enjoy a better reputation can be traced to one essential weakness in the script, or more accurately the characterization, which I’ll look at later.

Tom Owens (Power) is a man with a lot to learn; he’s the son of the stagecoach owner and has been sent west to learn the business. With his apprenticeship nearing its end he’s eager to escape the confines of the isolated swing station which he’s been sharing with stationmaster and ’tutor’ Edgar Buchanan. The first whiff of danger comes with the news that a notorious outlaw called Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe) has broken out of prison and has already committed a murder. The first consequence is that Owens now finds himself saddled with task of putting up a disgruntled female passenger (Susan Hayward) and her child, since company policy dictates that the stage can’t carry them in these circumstances. It should come as no surprise that Zimmerman and his men duly arrive and take control of the station. So far this is all fairly standard fare, but the second half of the film really cranks up the tension as Owens has to play a cat and mouse game with Zimmerman to ensure not only his own survival but that of the woman and child also. The real surprise is who comes to dominate proceedings and gains the upper hand in the end.

Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward in a tight spot in more ways than one.

Susan Hayward was one of those strong women who seemed to dominate the screen effortlessly. From her first appearance in Rawhide, she grabs hold of the viewer’s attention and never lets go until the credits roll. People often use, and indeed overuse, the term powerhouse performance but it’s no exaggeration to say that Hayward delivers one here. She proves herself tough and resourceful enough to be a match for any of the male characters. However, if this is one of the great strengths of the film it’s also the factor that damages it. While it’s no criticism of Hayward, both Power and Marlowe pale in comparison. Power’s character is a weak one from the outset and remains so for the duration. In certain films that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but westerns tend to suffer when the male lead appears ineffectual. There is a similar problem with Hugh Marlowe’s villain, who is a bit colorless and just doesn’t appear to have the steel required to control a band of desperadoes. In fact, Marlowe looks completely out of place in this setting, although he is given a backstory to help explain the cultured nature of Zimmerman. Now, this kind of thing could hamstring a film, but it’s saved by the performances of Zimmerman’s sidekicks, particularly Jack Elam and Dean Jagger. Elam was an actor who was prone to hamming it up and devouring the scenery, and his turn as the depraved Tevis does just that. However, given Marlowe’s shortcomings, this adds some much needed meat to the outlaws’ threats.

Fox put Rawhide out on DVD in R1 last spring in a box which bundled it together with Garden of Evil and The Gunfighter. Typical of much of Fox’s output, the transfer is excellent and the disc has some nice extras, including a short featurette on Susan Hayward and another on the Lone Pine locations. All told,  Rawhide is a fine western with some very tense and genuinely dramatic moments. It’s not quite in the top tier, largely for the reasons I mentioned above, but is well worth an hour and a half of anyone’s time. It’s been suggested to me that there are some similarities to Boetticher’s The Tall T, and I can see where that may be the case. However, the similarities are really only plot points and both the characterization and direction mark them out as quite different films. Having said that, I do think that those who enjoyed Boetticher’s spare tales of tight knit groups in a tense situation would definitely take something positive from Rawhide.

Jesse James

Posted on February 21st, 2008 in 1930s, Westerns, Henry King, Randolph Scott, Henry Fonda, Tyrone Power by Colin

Having recently seen The Assassination of Jesse James, and having enjoyed it immensely, it occurred to me to go back and revisit some of the other movies based on the legendary outlaw. Along with William Bonney the name Jesse James has become an integral part of the myth of the west. For both of these men, questions of who and what they were and why they acted as they did have been endlessly explored and no truly satisfactory answers have emerged. But does that really matter? To me it doesn’t since the movies are and were, at heart, an entertainment and storytelling medium. It seems naive in the extreme to seek the whole truth in a dramatic form - if you want the real facts you need to look elsewhere. Henry King’s 1939 version of Jesse James certainly bends the truth more than a little, but that doesn’t mean the film is a poor one.  

This movie opens in the years following the Civil War and portrays Jesse (Tyrone Power) and brother Frank (Henry Fonda) as peace loving farmers in Missouri. That’s the first of many inaccuracies, for the truth is that the brothers had already strayed into lawlessness during the war - Frank riding with Quantrill and Jesse with another group of guerrilla raiders. There is no doubt, right from the beginning, that the true villain here is the railroad and more specifically it’s representatives. The railroad, as in many westerns, is shown to be the product of the greedy and corrupt east. It is the actions of one of the railroad agents (Brian Donlevy) that causes the James bothers to turn their backs on the law. From this point on their fates are mapped out for them and further dissembling on the part of the big businessmen serves only to provide more justification for the brother’s criminal activities.

Would you turn your back on this man? John Carradine & Tyrone Power

The movie is full of some fine set pieces such as the early train robbery with Jesse riding up to the rear, hauling himself aboard, and then proceeding along the roof for the whole length of the locomotive until he reaches the engine. The famous raid on the bank in Northfield could have been given more time but it does contain some great action shots - Jesse and Frank riding their horses through a store window to escape and then following that up with a dive off a cliff into a river below.

Power and Fonda play the brothers as essentially romantic and heroic figures, but the film is not above pointing out the less honorable aspects of Jesse’s character. At one point Randolph Scott’s sympathetic lawman makes it clear that Jesse’s initial justification has been superceded by simple, inexcusable criminality. Another scene, on the eve of the Northfield raid, shows Jesse to be a man on the verge of losing control and only the efforts of his more rational brother haul him back. Scott’s supporting role doesn’t offer much and I get the feeling that it was only included to show that all authority figures are not scheming back-stabbers. The notorious Bob Ford is played by John Carradine as a craven scoundrel with whom the viewer can feel no sympathy whatsoever. As a portrait of cowardly betrayal it’s well done but, as with all the villainous parts, remains one dimensional.  

Fox issued the movie on DVD last year and the presentation is a good deal less than might have been hoped for. Frankly, the print is in poor condition and this is particularly evident for the first half hour or so where the age of the film becomes painfully obvious. Things do improve as it goes on but issues with the colour occasionally arise. The film clearly needs restoration work but, despite it’s shortcomings, I’m still very happy to at least have it in my collection.