Ad Astra (2019): To The Stars and “The Seeing Eye”

Ad_Astra_-_film_posterSince the dawn of man, the vast reaches of the cosmos up above have enamored us to the nth degree. You need only watch something like 2001 to be reminded of that fact. (There’s no doubt James Gray is well-versed in its frames.)

Herein lies a core theme throughout our very existence. We have this inherent overlap between science and spirituality — the celestial spheres and the extra-terrestrial — forming a framework for how we comprehend this world.

Aspects of this film even have a near-liturgy or the solemnity of an open-air cathedral. Dean Martin’s “Heaven Can Wait” is a hymn and a hint. Prayers are cast up to St. Christopher for the pilgrimage ahead. The dead are venerated like saintly martyrs for the cause. Because somewhere at the end of it all is the thought of some universal meaning, some ultimate truth, be it God or sentient being.

One is reminded of the proclamation the Soviet Union made when they sent their cosmonaut in the stratosphere and came back down not having seen God. In essence, the conclusion was that this tangible world was all there is. Tools and technology are the instruments in which to make sense of the world. God, in whatever form, is only a pipe dream or a form of wish fulfillment for the weak. We must look somewhere else. Inside ourselves perhaps.

C.S. Lewis in his essay “The Seeing Eye” wrote the following response when pressed on the Soviet’s pronouncement:

“Space-travel really has nothing to do with the matter. To some, God is discoverable everywhere; to others, nowhere. Those who do not find Him on earth are unlikely to find Him in space. (Hang it all, we’re in space already; every year we go a huge circular tour in space.) But send a saint up in a spaceship and he’ll find God in space as he found God on earth. Much depends on the seeing eye.”

Watching Ad Astra (Latin for “To The Stars”) with this context uncovers profound meaning for me. It is a journeyman’s film pure and simple. Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride is on a mission to the outer reaches of the galaxy. He procures helping agents along the way namely Donald Sutherland in an enigmatic role and Ruth Negga, an operations director and Mars-native who dreams of Earth as the distant reality she once visited as a child. It brings to mind her parents, now deceased. Yet another cryptic puzzle piece.

One is led to think they do a fine job being exactly that, mysterious and understated, but it doesn’t give us much to relish as an audience. Tommy Lee Jones is a vanished American hero clouded with secrets of his own. Could it be the rumblings are true and he’s the manifestation of Kurtz in the heart of darkness on the surface of Neptune?

The question becomes not what is at the end of the universe but even more sobering, what if there’s nothing there, just the vastness and austere beauty (as Kubrick depicted, without his images of rebirth)? What are we to do then? Ad Astra‘s conclusions aren’t all that different than the Soviets all those years ago, but they are admittedly far less cynical.

While it lacks true emotional heft in crucial scenes, Gray’s endeavor is concerned with human relationship and this distinction is ever so important. Because this niche of movies can fall into two categories. 2001 spearheads those that are not altogether interested in humanity as such. It’s vast and clinical with the vision and scope Kubrick could capture immaculately. Whereas Tarkovsky’s Solaris or even more recent films like Gravity and Interstellar are far more intimate, regardless of any flaws they might engender.

James Gray is certainly skilled at developing the world planted in a so-called “near-future.” Still, as expansive as the galaxy becomes with every panorama and lens flair by Hoyte van Hoytema, so much more of the movie is borne by the features of Brad Pitt. His perspective and his thoughts. We come to understand him in physical proximity even as we are never allowed close emotional proximity.

Because Ads Astra is a pensive, solitary film. It maintains some intrigue by divulging little and stretching out its assets. It plays with some generic terrors. For instance, “The Surge” that has sent a shockwave across earth leaving many dead and without power. We have moon raiders, Gravity-like survival moments, which Pitt handles with steely aplomb, and touches of governmental conspiracy verging on the sinister.

Primates in space give another brief glimpse of 2001, Planet of The Apes, or even Alien. However, we also get the fleeted footed Nicholas Brothers, who are one of the best-kept secrets of Classic Hollywood’s musical circuit. All these are cultural references to earth, mind you, and not the outer reaches of the galaxy. This is an important observation.

Because there is an uncanny feeling that humanity has managed to shape outer space into our own image with the proliferation of Subway or DHL shipping even made available on the surface of the moon.  It makes the Restaurant on The End of The Universe less of a joke and more and more of a reality.

Still, these are never the elements completely defining Ad Astra for me. They are of secondary or even tertiary importance in deference to the central character study. I am willing to give Pitt the benefit of the doubt and believe his performance to be authentic and genuine. Where his masculinity is made really and truly vulnerable. We don’t build a deep connection with him precisely because he doesn’t have a rapport with anyone. Not his wife (Liv Tyler in a minuscule role), not his father, not anyone.

We begin to assemble a blueprint of someone who has always dwelled in their father’s footsteps, resentful of being abandoned, and simultaneously driven to be the best he can be in pursuit of the same auspicious goals. There are fractures cutting through his life even as he is a figurehead of national pride and American know-how, his life continually compartmentalized into professional and personal.

In fact, Ad Astra is simultaneously an exploration of how we forge heroes and erect idols in our culture. It doesn’t actually tackle this idea to an altogether satisfying conclusion, although it’s pardonable as the film literally takes an about-face. This is how it manages to set itself apart from the pack with a final decision different than the Soviets or Lewis, Kubrick or Nolan, even Tarkovsky.

For the final key, I turn to a very mundane place. One of my favorite bands sings about “Stars” from a Descartes perspective — humanity at the center of the universe — only to turn it on its head.

Instead of us looking up into the heavens, it becomes the stars looking down at us. To recall Lewis, those who cannot find “God” on earth will hardly find them in space. And those who look for meaning or the beauty or the love they are lacking in the skies above will probably be disappointed.

After all, maybe our objective is not the stars at all, and it never was. They are only markers and a compass with which to reorientate ourselves amid the entropy of this lifetime, that is, existence on earth. Once oriented, we can start looking around and seeing the people orbiting around us and begin a new objective — to love and cherish one another. It’s striking Roy’s final words almost sound like wedding vows. As if he went to the stars only to realize what he had to come back to. He finally had eyes to see.

4/5 Stars

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019): Tarantino By Way of Model Shop

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To his credit, Quentin Tarantino will always and forever be a divisive creative force. There is no recourse but to either love or dislike his work. I fall closer to the latter category though I’m not as vehement as some.

At the core of this fission are his own proclivities. Tarantino has always been a profane filmmaker reveling in gushing blood capsules and wall to wall pop-cultural references. His knowledge is dizzyingly Encyclopedic even as it leans toward all the deliciously lowbrow delights he can indulge in. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize his nods to Leone and the Spaghetti western or his love affair with everything as diverse as pulp-infused noir and Hong Kong action cinema.

He eats it up voraciously and practices it devotedly. It’s not too far a stretch to say cinema is his religion — or at least the most important entity in his life — and yet even his obsessions are indulgent and so every movie he’s taken on has those traits. In essence, nothing is sacred. As he’s made quite clear, he makes movies he would want to see. They fit into his vision.

Remarkably, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is probably the most personal picture he’s ever made — the one touching on something the most human — where there is even a hint of authenticity and something real that does not need a wink or an undermining remark.

I think of Sharon Tate in this picture as portrayed by Margot Robbie. I understand some people taking issue with how she is established. The vocal weight of her part holds nothing comparing to the bromance of her male counterparts.

But in the context of what has been manifested, it feels warm and humane in a way we very rarely see from the director. He is giving Sharon a few days of her life back, in a sense, and pays her another honor by not removing her actual image from the footage or the posters we see (ie. Don’t Make Waves or The Wrecking Crew). It’s all her. Right there in front of us to be appreciated again and not merely gaped at. She simply exists for a few solitary days in the summer of 1969.

However, the same respect is not paid to Bruce Lee or for that matter, anyone else because Tarantino never operates that way. He’s beloved for his very irreverence of everything even as everything in his films is saturated with reference and homage.

It makes Once Upon a Time‘s most relevant points of departure all the more surprising. Model Shop (1969) is an unhurried slice-of-life film distilling The Sunset Strip and the surrounding area much in the way Tarantino does. And yet Jacques Demy is on the complete opposite spectrum of a Tarantino.

His films are full of fantasy as well but more whimsy, romance, and an almost innocent naivete. For instance, I could never imagine Tarantino being able to pull off a non-ironic musical; Demy imbibed their magic.

But Model Shop was a departure for him as much as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is slightly different for Tarantino. At any rate, it finds them drifting toward a central thematic world — Hollywood of the late 60s — where there is golden sun to match the melancholy and the music.

The post-Kennedy, Vietnam-era malaise is upon us even as it clashes up against the rock ‘n roll soundtrack supplied by the likes of Simon & Garfunkel, The Mama and The Papas, and Paul Revere & The Raiders.

The representation of 1969 on its own is impressively immersive as if Tarantino is recreating his childhood — the way he used to remember things — and no doubt he is. I only know secondhand and still heartily appreciate the likes of 93 KHJ and The Real Don Steele, all but ubiquitous, with the static whizz of the radio bathing the listener in jingles and audio AC. The lit-up signage of The Sunset Strip, billboards and advertisements, stretching out across the horizon.

Products like Velveeta, Kraft, Hormel Chili. I know those too. And that is part of the enjoyment of this movie, to be given a couple hours to bask in the nostalgia of the past, whether it’s the Westwood Theater, drive-in movies, and certainly the myriad of era-appropriate posters we catch glimpses of.

And the sprawling — some would say lethargic — runtime allows for these day-in-the-life type scenarios we would not get in your typical film. However, Tarantino also has the task of inserting his own vision into the tableaux put before him.

Rick Dalton’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) character is an extension of the issues I have with these types of pictures: a fictitious character in a real world. To be honest, the writer-director fully commits to inserting him into the bygone era from co-starring with Telly Savalas, being up for The Great Escape, and now in his downward spiral guest spotting in FBI and Lancer.

And against these ready-made touchstones, Tarantino can employ his own fanciful riffs off history. Whether the amalgam of Bounty’s Law — take your pick of any 50s or 60s shows (Burke’s Law and Wanted Dead or Alive spring to mind) and you’re there. As Tarantino has already acknowledged, this prevalent career decline during the mid to the late ’60s was indicative of many of the tough guy idols who could not transition. This arc is not made up.

However, I find myself grappling with the same problem I had with Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, though to a different degree. Because, of course, everything Tarantino’s ever made is couched in pulp and totally self-aware. It’s the real with the fiction. It just so happens I find the real far more compelling. For instance, Sharon Tate, the depictions of the L.A. milieu, even the glowering menace of the tripped-out Mansion Family, these elements engage with social context head-on.

Whereas when I watch the spoofed scenes out of his own Inglorious Basterds parody or Dalton’s latest guest appearance as a heavy in the real-life — albeit obscure — Lancer, there’s not the same thrill. It’s not so much that we know we are watching a movie; it has to do with knowing we are watching Tarantino play out his own reenactments with all his tongue-in-cheek (and sometimes spot-on) parody.

The moments of Dalton that get at something more complex are the doubts that plague an actor in his position. For an extended scene, he sits in a casting chair with his precocious costar (Julia Butters) recounting the two-bit western paperback he’s been reading. Through rather overt terms, he and the audience realize the downward spiral of the book’s hero describes him to a tee. And he sobs.

Otherwise, I find most of these interludes to be dead ends, only useful for watching Tarrantino avail himself of his own personal pleasures. The one exception is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) because his function is less about parody or homage.

He fits into this world but it feels more organic — not like Tarantino is pasting his creation into the boots of several other men. Like Gary Lockwood in Model Shop, or even Sharon Tate in this film, he is also afforded the luxury of meandering around town to make the most of the mimesis Tarantino has employed.

He resides in a Jim Rockford-like trailer hitch, beer in hand in front of the TV with his closest companion, his salivating dog Brandy. It instantly provides us something else delectably dilapidated. There’s nothing wrong with DiCaprio but I am drawn to Pitt’s characterization especially.

His loyalty feels indicative of some indestructible set of values and common decency. One might surmise his type of people are representative of all that was simultaneously right and wrong with America. Because it’s true you can start saying that about just about everyone. We all bring our share of good and bad into the world.

Even his detour to the old Spahn Movie Ranch — coaxed to the sketchy commune by Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), a coquettish member of the Mansion family, as he is — keeps with his sense of right and wrong. And even in a foreboding arena such as this, he walks toward it more like Dirty Harry than Jim Rockford. He seems indestructible and for all intent and purposes, he is. We know any attempt on him will be negligible as he casually makes his acquaintances and checks in on the old man (Bruce Dern).

The ending Tarantino wanted to keep hushed up is rather ironic for how unsurprising it really is, when you get right down to it. I hardly mean it as a spoiler. If you’ve seen even a bit of any of his oeuvre, you know what’s coming. The instant tip-off is the song  “12:30 (Young Girls Are Coming to The Canyon)” because if I wanted to make a film about Cielo Dr. or Laurel Canyon there’s no other choice. It’s one of the few instances of near on-the-nose song selection.

The lamentable thing is he somehow leaves behind all the best moments of Once Upon a Time behind — the fairy tale moments even — and winds up with something far more Tarantino-esque. His fans will be praising the glories of his name because he has done it again. That much is certain.

However, others of us will rue the potential wasted. What could have been a far more honest portrait than we might have ever thought the man capable of is like all the rest, a provocative, messy collage of ambitions and years of cultural relics skillfully sutured together.

But it feels again like Tarantino is more a gifted fanboy than a man with a genuine cinematic heart and soul. His aesthetic is cutting all of his heroes into something outrageously bombastic; because he boasts many, both high and low.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this style but after the momentary glimpse into something else, more promising even, it falls short of what could have been. Maybe it’s this reality that plants his dashed fairy tale most firmly in a problematic past we can never have back, even if we wanted it. What’s more, he had to bludgeon the magic out of the movie with an utterly Tarantino crescendo. Nothing can be taken seriously. Nothing is sacred.

3.5/5 Stars

To Each His Own (1946): Olivia de Havilland Does Melodrama Well

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Ginger Rogers purportedly passed over the script for To Each His Own because, at first glance, it’s hardly a glamorous role; but for the right person, it could be something unquestionably special. That actor was Olivia de Havilland.

Certainly, the production is bolstered by Mitchell Leisen, a mostly forgotten director who made a string of highly memorable comedies and romantic pictures during the 30s and 40s. It’s no different here. And then you have Charles Brackett, formerly half of the lucrative writing partnership with Billy Wilder before alighting on his own as a producer. None of that can be discounted nor a handily-played dual debut by John Lund. But we must return to Olivia de Havilland.

In the opening interludes, she comes off as acerbic and curt, a forlorn type of person. No relationships or community or people to worry about or to worry about her. She’s joined by another middle-aged man named Desham (Roland Culver) and they make quite the pairing, taking on the night watch duty over the holidays so others might celebrate.

He coolly makes the observation that people like themselves are alone for one of two reasons — not caring enough for other people or caring far too much. Though Ms. Norris divulges little, we instantly gather she fits into the latter category. This is what starts us on the journey through her past, which led her to a man named Bart Cosgrove (John Lund).

But before their fateful meeting, the flashback sets up the world of Pierson Falls, familiar to anyone who has glimpsed It’s a Wonderful Life with its parochial atmosphere and local drugstore. Match that with the jingoism out of Hail the Conquering Hero and you have a slice of life in this little town during WWI.

John Lund is sour and far harsher than I recall in say The Mating Season and it serves him quite well. He and his co-pilot (the always reliable Frank Faylen) are the two jaded flyers who get the hardiest of welcomes from the townsfolk. However, this is their umpteenth stop on an endless bond tour. They’ve become overly familiar with people like Bernadock Clinton (Arthur Loft) the asinine town cryer making a continual bother of himself ushering the flyers around like prized sideshow attractions. And it would be more of the same if not for the meeting of the flyer with the town’s most eligible gal.

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The heightened emotion of wartime uncertainty swirls around them and they share a rapturous, if whirlwind, romance that Captain Cosgrove was never expecting. All too soon, he’s off again leaving his newfound love behind and to use euphemistic vernacular, they’ve created a ticking time bomb.

Here To Each His Own enters its scandalous phase where Jody must confess to her father that she’s had a child out of wedlock. The old man (Griff Barnett), with the steady voice, sounds uncannily like Will Geer and spouts unassuming wisdom, “We don’t judge each other. We love each other.” But small towns are not usually as forgiving and so lest people talk, Jody decides to leave her child on a doorstep. Hoping to pick her child up later and “adopt him.”

Instead, a couple who’ve been tragically hit with a miscarriage are thankful for this second chance at cultivating life and they take the child. Of course, the couple is one of Jody’s old beaus and another peer. They got married because Jody rejected him. The dramatic situation is clear enough.

When the mechanizations of the plot become clear, it also becomes clear just how awful the circumstances are — just horrible. They’re apt to tear your guts out. After the passing of her father, Jody, who needs a job, proposes coming on as a nursemaid, but there is no compassion there. She gets pushed out of the scenario thanks to a jealous wife and a husband who still holds a boyhood crush.

She has no choice to move on and, being a go-getter, she takes charge of a bootlegging business and turns its front, Lady Windemere’s, into a legitimate international operation proving highly successful. Whenever she has a free moment, Jody does her best to manufacture chance encounters just so she can glimpse a few minutes with her son who is growing in knowledge and stature. But she knows deep down, with each passing year, little Gregory is less and less her son.

Melodramas or so-called “women’s pictures” can be hit or miss depending on how thick they lay it on and how much the music swells at the exact moments of deepest impact. But in full consideration, To Each His Own might be one of the finest such pictures to come out of the 1940s, and it’s no small coincidence that it shares that distinction with the thematically similar Stella Dallas.

When it’s all said in done, it’s about heartwrenching relationships between mothers and their children and when the mothers are portrayed by such stalwart titans as Barabra Stanwyck and, in this case, Olivia de Havilland; the drama enters territory that can easily pierce the heart to the core.

To Each His Own is also somehow akin to Random Harvest with dramatic irony being integral to the plot — one character knowing something that deeply affects how they live their life — except the person they care about knows nothing about it. This is by no means a criticism either but simply an acknowledgment that these stories can tug at the heartstrings with great fervor.

Again, it comes down to the players as much as the scenario. They must be people that we are capable of feeling great pathos for. Certainly Stanwyck, Greer Garson, and Ronald Colman and even Olivia de Havilland. Maybe she’s known for being difficult or a perfectionist or what have you, but that has nothing or maybe everything to do with her as an actress.

She makes us care about her as she moves from every stage of her life. And I say life because it feels less and less like a performance and more like real life. She, like Stanwyck before her, is able to carry the weight of youthful exuberance and maternal toil equally well.

Far from being unglamorous for winding up being mother to a grown son, I think a film like To Each His Own makes you appreciate the beauty of de Havilland even more. Because there’s a realness and a depth there that you would have never gotten in a career of roles opposite Errol Flynn. You just wouldn’t.

That’s part of what makes it special. And like the other previously mentioned titles, it goes out with a few tears but also espousing dreams. We can question the final moment — the rationality; the catering to the audience — or we can just enjoy it like a wedding feast with the ones we love.

4/5 Stars

Gentleman Jim (1942): Biopic by Marquess of Queensberry Rules

Gentleman_Jim_-_Poster.jpgBoxing movies and biopics are a mainstay of Hollywood. It’s an established fact so naming names is all but unnecessary. The affable brilliance of Gentleman Jim is its agile footwork allowing it to sidestep a myriad of tropes attached to biopics and the schmaltz that Old Hollywood was always capable of serving up.

Certainly, a great deal of credit must be heaped upon Errol Flynn who seems to relish the very opportunity to portray such a magnetic man as James J. Corbett — always perceptive and driven with a bevy of tricks at his disposal to get ahead. I can’t help but hear Butch Cassidy’s words in my ears, “I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals. Corbett could live by that credo too.

Authenticity is to be trodden upon softly and so there is a sense Flynn has taken the “gentleman” moniker of his namesake and fashioned the role around his own roguish charm, good looks, and irrefutable charisma. Thus, it becomes almost second nature for him to play the part because there’s this sense that he’s playing what he knows best, and loving every minute of it.

He’s meant to come from hardy Irish stock with a jovial father (Alan Hale), two boisterous older brothers, an awestruck sister, and the ever maternal mother figure. Around all these types Flynn and Jim feel like outliers. They’re not meant to fit into this family and yet it somehow manages to work — Marty McFly anyone?

The script, co-written by Vincent Lawrence and Horace McCoy, begins by drawing up the story in a most agreeable fashion that takes into account our hero’s life but also considers any number of stray antecedents that led to his rise in the boxing world.

Boxing in its most barbaric forms is being outlawed across the nation. Jim and his hapless buddy Walter (Jack Carson) spy the prominent higher-up from their bank at a fight only to have the police raid the event. Soon they’re all in prison with their prominent friend and Jim sees it as the perfect opportunity to earn some favor. Soon Judge Geary has brought on his young protege as a new brand of fighter: one with class.

Being a fast worker, Jim gets himself into the elitist Olympic Club doing his best to look the part of a  well-to-do gentleman, despite hardly having a dollar to his name. Concurrently he begins annoying the gentleman around him with his constant stream of boys sent around paging him.

It becomes quickly apparent that Gentleman Jim exists in a world, not unlike that of Walsh’s Strawberry Blonde (1941), where America seemed to have acquired a newfound propriety. Nasty pugilism had been replaced with marquess Queensberry Rules and someone like Jim Corbett was able to become something.

He soon is acquainted with Ms. Victoria Ware (Alexis Smith) who along with her family are members of the social elite and patrons of the bank. I must admit that the Canadian actress has all but slunk under my radar aside from her part in Conflict opposite Bogart.

But I have rectified the oversight because she gives a lovely turn opposite Flynn allowing the sparks to fly in the most vehement way possible. High-class respectability can only get you so far. Sometimes you just want to see someone get wailed on for their own good.

She has just about enough of his conceited ways finding him utterly infuriating with his faux polished manners and overblown head. He has the gall to criticize her idol worshipping of such an eminent legend as John L. Sullivan. Corbett being an utter nobody himself. But he’s got ideas and the fancy feet to go someplace.

Upon leaving their little tiff, he dances his way back down the street zigzagging through oncoming passerby. He’s got John L. Sullivan (an impeccably cast Ward Bond) on the mind now. Because there was no bigger national hero, icon, and legend than John L. Sullivan. The film even evokes the famous phrase, “I just shook the hand that shook the hand of John L. Sullivan!” He was that big of a celebrity.

Backed by William Frawley in his corner, Corbett is soon on the rise taking on anyone who will get him some visibility. In the ring, the suave-looking Irishman is a model of agility and impeccable footwork. Though Flynn, to his credit, stood in for most of the scenes his flying feet were spotted by world-class former welterweight Mushy Callahan.

Many of the sequences capture the immersive even suffocating atmosphere of a boxing match through fairly furious cutting, especially for an old film. Inserting shots of the ring, mincing feet, and a flurry of audience reactions throwing together a swirling experience.

The most frenzied is a back and forth river barge slugfest with haymaker after haymaker flying through the air. Corbett and his hulking opponent wind up decking each other flat again and again.  Flynn takes a plunge into the water only to lay out his competitor for good minutes later.

The victor is finally raised as the police arrive on the scene to crash the proceedings and all the spectators jump ship in the most tumultuous and mayhem-filled denouements to a fight you’ve ever witnessed. The beauty is we get an almost birdseye view of the madness from the cheap seats and we see on what a large scale everyone is frantically escaping. Jumping into the drink. Screaming and shouting. It’s the kind of bedlam that’s contagious and a real enjoyment from reel to reel for some inexplicable reason.

Surely the fight to top them all is Jim Corbett against John L. Sullivan. But just as important as the actual bout is the skirmish going on outside the ropes. As the telegraph lines are flooding the country with news round after round, Corbett’s clandestine backer watches expectantly for him to get clobbered.

Meanwhile, Ms. Ware’s father with a glint in his eye eggs her on very tenderly toward the most antagonistic man in her life and subsequently the most important. In the movies at least, the people who detest each other the most wind up making the most passionate romances.

Aside from love, Gentleman Jim is refreshingly light on heart-wrenching drama or needless sentiment for that matter. It slips up in one solitary moment where a gracious Sullivan looks back wistfully at an illustrious career and pays his respects to Gentleman Jim. If anything it shows that Flynn can play genuine just as he can slather on the charm.

For contemporary audiences, it no doubt carried a sardonic edge as the actor was simultaneously embroiled in a scurrilous court trial that all but ruined his reputation for months on end.

Regardless, standing on its own merit, Gentleman Jim might just be one of my new favorite boxing exhibitions and the key is that there’s seemingly no agenda. It ebbs and flows around a life and characters without concerted realism or a need for continual heightened drama. And yet we still find it compelling and jovial with all sorts of moments worth telling the folks at home about.

In fact, that might just be Raoul Walsh’s finest attributes making every scene, action, brawl, what-have-you, totally immersive, effectively involving the audience through his array of shots. While Flynn and Smith are finally in each other’s arms, Jack Carson makes one final call straight to the camera shouting that the Corbett boys are at it again, duking it out in the parlor. Some things never change and the beauty is that we’re in on the joke as much as anyone within the frame. What a delightful biopic. Shamelessly fun to the very last word.

4.5/5 Stars

The Sea Hawk (1940): Errol Flynn Against The Spanish Armada

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Anyone who knows even a smidgeon about historical dates knows what the big to-do with 1588 is. If anything, 1588 automatically means the sinking of the Spanish Armada by Queen Elizabeth’s forces. So when a film opens in Spain in 1585 we already have a good idea of where we might be going. It’s the voyage to get there which matters most.

I can’t quite help but see the parallels between Spain and the Nazis aspirations for world domination. Because in the year 1585 there is a King in Spain named Phillip II who not unlike an incumbent dictator in 1940 was looking to conquer all of Europe with England being a priority.

With this historical backdrop, Warner Bros. gathers another classic ensemble anchored by Errol Flynn and director Michael Curtiz along with the steady support of Alan Hale. Following his debut as a film composer in Captain Blood (1935), Erich Wolfgang Korngold returns to similar waters to provide the scoring once more.

The film does feel empty without Olivia de Havilland but she was by this point fed up with playing second or third fiddle in swashbucklers. Be that as it may, Brenda Marshall (the future Mrs. William Holden). with a shining countenance, fills in swimmingly in one of her most prominent performances.

Leading his pride and joy The Albatross in the service of her majesty Queen Elizabeth, English captain Geoffrey Thorpe (Errol Flynn) makes a glorious conquest of an enemy ship. The thrilling surf soaked cannonball-filled action picks up right in the same waters as Captain Blood.

He just happens to commandeer the boat carrying the Spanish ambassador (Claude Rains) across the English channels. It is the conniving man’s mission to ingratiate himself with the queen and being the two-faced scoundrel that he is, he finds Thorpe to be an incorrigible scoundrel.

Though he makes a monkey of court and her closest advisor Lord Wolfingham who seems quite sympathetic toward the Spaniards on a whole, Elizabeth is fond of Thorpe’s patriotic brand of cheekiness. Envisioning vast spoils at the hands of the Spanish, he takes on a clandestine mission off the record albeit with the Queen’s permission behind closed chamber doors.

Cloak and dagger countermeasures ensue as Don Jose looks to ensure that his mortal enemy will be cut off before he has any chance to do anything. Although initially turned off by the scoundrel, his daughter soon becomes enchanted by his chivalry even as she fails to intercept him in time. They are riding off into a trap.

They set out through the sepia-toned world of Panama in search of vast treasures to be plundered from their enemies. Instead, they get brutally ambushed and pushed back into the mosquito-infested swampland by the waiting conquistadors.

Whereas Captain Blood found Flynn starting at the bottom in The Sea Hawk he is brought down into the pits of despair once taken prisoner. He and all his men are imprisoned aboard a Spanish ship, oarsmen chained to their places and beaten mercilessly. They grind it out and take the torture while biding their time behind the oars.

It takes time but eventually, a chance is created culminating in a brazen escape attempt. The midnight mutiny is aided exquisitely moment by moment by Korngold’s score put on full display and nearly urging the men on in their quest while instigating an underlying tension.

The final burst of drama comes when Thorpe returns to shore, reunited with his love in her carriage making amends and sneaking back to the queen’s castle cloaked by night. Making it to the queen proves a nearly insurmountable task with all the guards on high alert and Wolfingham waiting to intercept him for one final duel. But Flynn could never be outdone and Henry Daniell is certainly no Basil Rathbone. The Queen gets the news and vows to battle the Spanish Armada. We know the rest of the story.

While not quite eclipsing the jaunty heights of Captain Blood, this worthy successor nevertheless has its own share of thrills and fine action with Flynn maintaining high form. Perhaps it’s partially a testament to how captivatingly the film opens because it’s difficult for any picture to maintain that kind of vigor all the way through. But with a valiant effort led by its charming rapscallion and his crew, they wade through any slow passages to bring us back around to the grade-A entertainment of a quality swashbuckler.

The production thriftily saved on funds by repurposing the exquisite period costuming from The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex from the prior year. They become a perfect extension of the storyline to match Flora Robson’s formidable turn as the Queen. Meanwhile, Claude Rains is transformed into a dark-haired Machiavellian villain which he pulls off with the required amount of duplicity. This time around, Flynn’s character is based on the legendary Sir Francis Drake and yet like Robin Hood before, the Australian falls into the part and makes it his own through magnetism, athleticism, and wit. It’s another sterling achievement.

Queen Elizabeth gives one final stirring message that again can be taken in its time as a veiled indictment of Hitler’s belligerent aspirations. America had yet to enter the war and yet in over a year’s time, they would be right by England’s side. It wasn’t quite the surprise defeat of the Spanish Armada but it would take long hard years of waves of sacrifice and hard toil against the enemy. Winston Churchill is said to have admired this picture immensely and it’s hardly difficult to see why. It sums up his guiding sentiments exactly. After all, he is the man who famously said:

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

4/5 Stars

Note: I watched the original restored uncut version of the film that clocks in at 127 minutes.

 

Dodge City (1939): An Errol Flynn Western

Dodge_City_1939_Poster.jpgThe year is 1866. The Civil War is over and anyone with vision is moving west. One such outpost is Kansas where the railway is replacing the stagecoach. It’s a world of iron men and iron horses. Because a place like the notorious Dodge City is a “town that knew no ethics but cash and killing.”

It’s not a decent place for children and womenfolk for the time being. But some affluent magnates with vision see the profits it affords. That’s their business. It will take others to smooth out the rawness and make it into a land worth cultivating and settling down in.

Though lawlessness runs rampant in the streets led by town bad boy Jeff Surret (Bruce Cabot), a wagon train led by a caravan of seasoned cowhands looks to be yet another signifier of change. Because one of the men riding with the rest is self-assured Wade Hatton (Errol Flynn) supported by his pals. You can bet even with an accent Mr. Flynn makes an able-bodied western hero but he’s not alone.

Alan Hale was forever Flynn’s right-hand man from Robin Hood to The Sea Hawk (even playing his father in Gentleman Jim). They also get the boisterous and yet generally good-natured Tex (Guinn Big Boy Williams) to round out their trio. Hatton has his eyes on a pretty passenger who is easy on the eyes. Unfortunately, her younger brother is a drunken hellraising nuisance. He instigates a stampede that turns deadly and from thenceforward Wade and Ms. Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland) have a contentious relationship at best.

Seeing Dodge growing so much leaves everyone all agog. Never has a western outpost been crammed with such activity. It feels authentic in one sense. You understand how disease and waste could begin to run rampant in such a bustling atmosphere and crowded conditions. Hatton gets his first taste of Surret when one of his business associates named Orth is shot. But the story is not all drama.

In an ongoing scenario, the boisterous Algernon Hart (Hale) forgoes the tempting calls of the local Gay Lady Saloon for the Pure Prairie League, residing right next door, attended by all the town’s most proper womenfolk.

What follows just might be one of the finest brawl fight ever spilling over into the lady’s social, overwhelming the scene with all sorts of gory sights and gut-busting crashes, bams, and bangs. It feels wild, alive, and somehow thoroughly enjoyable. Maybe because we get to sit on the outside looking in at the merry madness accompanied by whoops and raucous accordion music.

What’s more, it forces a response. A drunken Hart is singled out by Surret and his thugs who get ready to string him up in the plaza right then and there. While Hatton quells the injustice without a standoff, there’s a sense that things will only continue to escalate. No sheriff will stick out their neck in such a country. No man seems strong enough.

Finally, a child (Bobs Watson) is lost it’s the final straw and Hatton vows to clean up the streets and bring civility, law and order to the territory. Rounding up the rowdy troublemakers and ending the citywide shootouts forcibly. He clamps down like no one has ever done and it begins to make things peaceable again.

It’s the old story of civilization moving in on the wheels of law and order, which slowly begin to push out the graft and corruption. Someone must have the guts to lead the crusade with ideals and guns, if necessary. But it takes a community behind him to make it stick.

In this case, he is backed by the paper and its audacious editor Joe Clemons (Frank McHugh) an ardent purveyor of free speech. Change happens incrementally. Scare tactics come and go. De Havilland joins the paper too in order to represent the interests of the local ladies and then becomes an integral member of Hatton’s crusade for good. He takes Surret’s right-hand man Yancy (Victor Jory) into his custody knowing full well that fierce retribution is coming.

Because it’s common knowledge that when two immovable objects come barreling toward each other, there’s bound to be drama. In Dodge City it comes to pass in a flaming railcar finale, one moment dire and in another thrilling, with faceoffs, ambushes, gunfights, prisoners, hostages, and some stellar sharpshooting. But a man like Wade is not meant to remain stagnant. Husband and wife ride off toward their next adventure on the range.

It truly is double trouble with Ann Sheridan and Olivia de Havilland. But Sheridan’s role had the potential to be far more compelling than it is, unfortunately. Aside from a few musical numbers and screaming for a brawl to stop, she doesn’t get much screentime before disappearing for good.

De Havilland is the obvious ingenue love interest and though she abhorred the unimaginative parts she was being handed, she nevertheless has ample talents to imprint herself on the picture. She and Flynn go through the expected beats of mutual distaste toward ultimate affection, and we delight in their chemistry even if it’s easily plotted from start to finish.

However, to survey Dodge City is to look at various pieces that feel almost incongruous. Here is Erroll Flynn playing a cowboy. The palette is Technicolor but the action is focused on towns and interiors opposed to magnificent plains. It’s not Ford. It’s not Wayne or Fonda, and yet it manages to be a fine actioner to add to the western canon due to compelling characterizations, deep-seated conflict, and of course, enough gunplay and romance to make it a true horse opera.

4/5 Stars

Captain Blood (1935) Starring Flynn and De Havilland

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To a certain stratum of society — namely classic movie fans — it’s nearly impossible to imagine Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland not being paired together or not being box office draws, for that matter. However, on both accounts, in 1935, the studio was taking quite the risk, still undoubtedly reeling from the heart of the Depression Years and shelling a hefty sum of money for a vehicle essentially starring two unknowns.

Sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle, and it remains for all posterity. Scoring, again and again, is quite another matter entirely. The pair would be placed together in an astounding 11 films in total!

This initial entry opens in England in 1685 and a band of patriotic rebels has taken it upon themselves to depose the current tyrant James II. Though he chooses to forego involving himself in the fighting, physician Peter Blood nevertheless goes with them in spirit and is ready and willing to operate on a fugitive who is mortally wounded. However, in the process of attending to the man, the king’s guards burst in upon him and all involved are arrested.

Their future is decided in a trial of pomp, circumstance, and unyielding justice. There are few figures in the legions of contenders as charismatic as Errol Flynn, beginning with his attempt to exonerate himself and extol his own noble profession. Even that fails to keep him from the executioner though the king fancies himself a humanitarian and decides to send the lot of traitors on slave ships to the West Indies instead.

There is a blatant irony in the depictions of white slavery while the deep wounds of black slavery were still being felt in our country through the oppression of Jim Crow Laws and racial injustice. This continues on the island plantation prison where the lads find themselves.

There they are sold on the auction blocks like chattel though much to his shame, Blood finds himself indebted to a pretty matron Arabella Bishop (Olivia De Havilland) who bought him for 10 pounds. Their relationship begins on the rockiest of soil and life thereafter is hard. Though eventually, Dr. Blood gains favor when he cures the hissy hypochondriac governor of his gout, earning himself greater freedom.

And with that the good doctor bides his time, planning an escape to coincide with a timely interruption on the outpost by Spanish Pirates. In the drunken escapades that follow, Blood gathers his men together, switching places with the invaders and a new band of pirates is born. They are a hardy lot including Blood’s faithful pilot and friend Jeremy Pitt (Ross Alexander), the sturdy gunner Hagthorpe (Guy Kibbee), and one Bible-spouting mate who has a bit of scripture for every occasion (And then the whale came and the whale swallowed Jonah. I hope!).

Their acclaim grows to such an extent that they fall into the company of a band of French Buccaneers led by a salty lady’s man named Levasseur (Basil Rathbone). He and Blood draw up a loose pact which quickly falls apart as they quarrel and end up dueling for the company of their esteemed “guest” Ms. Bishop. Laguna Beach, California ends up filling in for the Caribbean as they have it out in stirring fashion. Flynn and Rathbone were the best of foes when it came to crossing swords, even when they were purportedly allies.

In the final act, the outlaws are redeemed (like Robin Hood anyone?) taking up the banner of the new king William of Orange to fight a valorous battle for the glory of Merry Ol’ England. Thus, in spite of the tumultuous path he traversed, Captain Blood and his boys reach the pinnacle. He’s a hero and, of course, he gets the girl. There’s nothing her indignant uncle can do about it now as he’s been replaced by a far more benevolent governor.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ruefully admit how much I yearn for the epic swashbucklers of old. Captain Blood was the beginning of great successes to come and the type of Hollywood entertainment that is sorely missed today.

Although I hardly can remember their lips even touching, nevertheless, Flynn and de Havilland are fire together, all but cementing a screen partnership that would continue for many more. Even in the final scene together what becomes apparent is this genuinely contagious brand of fun. If anything they make it seem like a blast for the audience.

There’s a splendidly pulsating finale at sea where it’s convenient enough to cast inconsistencies overboard and instead be overwhelmed by the sheer mayhem of 2500 extras called on to do battle and make a show of it. They take to it handily clashing their cudgels, swinging from the yardarms, and falling into the drink, casualties of pistol fire.

Captain Blood is blessed with laughter as much as action and romance. The tenets of quality adventure filmmaking mean the picture enthralls us as much today as in its day because it knows what it means to have a good time. The seriousness can be shed for the sake of light-hearted, invigorating, no holds barred entertainment.

Because in the assured hands of Michael Curtiz, with a dashing new screen idol in Errol Flynn, Captain Blood never loses sight of what makes movies communal and thoroughly gratifying. Movies of old had a habit of being all things to all people, and it’s true this one has it all, I’m delighted to say.

The final testament is a smile imprinted on the face of the viewer as big as Flynn’s jaunty grin. Oh, what we wouldn’t give to be on the deck of that ship brandishing our cutlass and romancing a pretty young maiden just like he does. Maybe that’s my boyhood imagination speaking, but he really is the ideal action hero.

4.5/5 Stars

The Naked Dawn (1955): An Edgar G. Ulmer Western

220px-The_Naked_Dawn_film_poster.jpgThe western is founded on certain unifying archetypes, from drifters to revenge stories, showdowns and the westward progress of civilization butting up against the lawless wilderness. It always proved a fitting genre for morality plays and deeply thematic ideas. The tradition of the bank robbery goes back to Edwin S. Porter and The Great Train Robbery, and it plays an important role in The Naked Dawn.

The action opens with Mexican banditos robbing a train and looking to flee the scene. Though they manage to get away, it’s not without consequences. One hombre named Santiago watches as his campanero Vincente dies in his arms. He comforts him with visions of heavenly cattle grounds even though the man’s life was full of indiscretions, to put it nicely.

The story does occupy itself with religious rhetoric, which feels very much a part of the cultural landscape, as do the Spanish language and such ubiquitous elements as taco stands, cantinas, and a mariachi soundtrack. The film rightly steeps itself in this perceived world below the border. Whether it is authentic or not feels slightly immaterial, because something fairly immersive is erected. In one sense, this is the most impressive success of The Naked Dawn.

There is “brownface” needing acknowledgment and a certain stereotypical gaze, but director Edgar G. Ulmer develops a surprising amount of atmosphere for such a meager western. Secondly, Arthur Kennedy somehow manages to give a thoroughly flamboyant performance showing his competency in anchoring a leading role — even in an admittedly small scale oater like this.

Because in typical drifter fashion, he goes from leaving his dead buddy behind to finding a day’s shelter at a farmhouse along the trail. There he is met by an energetic young farmer and his dutiful wife. The presence of such a figure as Santiago unearths all their flaws even as he overwhelms them with his vagabond existence, full of a certain high-living and nostalgia for the old days.

Although initially hesitant to get involved, the husband finds himself brought along for a raid on a crooked shipment manager who they overpower and string up while raiding the contents of his safe. In the midst of all the money, Manuel (Eugene Iglesias) suddenly becomes brave and also greed springs to life in his heart.

For thence onward, Manuel holds this stranger in high regard, in awe of this man who has seen so much and takes him for the time of his life in the local watering hole, partaking of all the worldly pleasures afforded from strong drink, saucy women, lively music, and a bar brawl to wind out the entertainment.

But if this is the grand exciting world away from the ranch, then back with his doting wife (Betta St. John), we find a certain amount of unrest. She does not love her husband but his prospects were so much better than what she had before. Still, this new man makes her heart glad; she is ready to elope with him without fear of consequences.

The utter irony is the very fact that while Santiago is the outlaw, at least he is obvious and upfront about his waywardness. In his new company, Manuel fancies himself an honest man and his wife comes across as an angel. However, whether it’s unwitting or not, they both have more conflicted characters than they let on. Santiago is the one who allows them to salvage their lives.

It should be noted Francois Truffaut purportedly gleaned inspiration from this film’s love triangle for Jules et Jim. At first, any sort of comparison seems superficial at best. However, I finally settled on the fact both films contrive this three-way relationship that plays peculiarly for the very fact it lacks a great deal of interpersonal drama.

There is a passivity to how it unwinds and this feels counterintuitive to how these stories are supposed to function. Although we have tragedy on both accounts, the fact it is so detached leaves a different taste, rather than a blistering, jealousy-fueled gunshot finale. For that, we have to look at alternatives like Laura (1944) or Truffaut’s own Soft Skin (1964).

There is not a lot of time and space but the resources are used in all number of facets to at least touch on issues of religion, law and order, romance, greed, and unquestionably, so much more. Fittingly, as the picture zips to its rapid conclusion, we have come full circle with our larger-than-life Bandido dreaming of the pearly gates much like his campanero before him.

Ulmer blesses the audience with another extraordinarily lucid 10-day effort. Let that sink in for a second. The Naked Dawn is yet another marvel in economic ingenuity. Better yet, any drop off in quality or production values only seems to add to the film’s inherent flavor.

3.5/5 Stars

The Desperate Hours (1955) Bogart Vs. March

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As the credits roll, the camera zooms its way down a residential street but doesn’t feel natural. It’s like a peering gaze casing the scene as music hammers away in the background. What makes the imagery more disconcerting is that this tranquil picture-perfect suburbia could be plucked right out of Leave it to Beaver. In fact, coincidentally, the house is the very same!

In this film, it belongs to your typical everyday family circa 1955. The man of the house, Fredric March, sits around the breakfast table, preparing for his job at local bank, bemoaning the fact his kids are growing up.

Little Junior is already showing signs. Not wanting to kiss his pops goodbye. His daughter is lovestruck and intent on marrying her beau, which he can’t stand to think about. His wife is perfect. Pretty, maternal, and a fabulous homemaker. Its all a bit insipid on the whole but that’s very purposeful. Currently, we might call his daily struggles “first world problems.”

It is a bit of the lifestyle that can be easily plucked out of any of the old family sitcoms from Fathers Knows Best to The Donna Reed Show. And yet what those portraits of the nuclear family never did have was the threat of three convicts at-large…

Their hardened leader is Glenn Griffin (Humphrey Bogart) joined by the boisterous slob Kobish (Robert Middleton), and Griffin’s kid brother Hal (Dewey Martin).  Come to think of it, there was an episode of The Andy Griffith Show with striking parallels, albeit with more comical resolutions. As is, William Wyler’s piece falls more in line with The Detective Story (1951) from a few years prior pushing the stage elements out a bit but still centering its action on the family domicile.

Arthur Kennedy at the Police Precinct is brought on the case but he really feels like a wasted opportunity and a dead-end at best. The real meat of the story is within that house between the two men vying for control.

Bogart, who got his break in Petrified Forest (1936) as a crazed heavy, is essentially book-ending his career with tough guy roles. Even if he’s over the hill for such roles, he still makes a good snarling approximation of his former self. One could argue that time has only made him more disgruntled and worn. His convict is a much more sorry figure with 20 years sagging under his dour eyes.

He plans to lay low in the residential neighborhood until the money they’re expecting gets sent their way. So we expect the plot to be a waiting game. Except the subsequent tension comes with criminals existing in such close proximity to this family, a theme running through other contemporary dramas like He Ran All The Way (1951) and Suddenly (1954).

To be ousted by the authorities means that everyone gets it. And yet the Hilliards are commanded to stick to their daily rhythms as closely as possible, even as the fugitives take over the home and turn it into a shambles. The conflict that goes through Mr. Hilliard’s head is between doing as the convicts say to protect his family and trying to get in contact with the police. He’s faced with the most nervewracking proposition of his life as the hours tick excruciatingly by.

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When March finally gets to his office, frazzled by the turn of events, it feels like a Wyler touch of perfectionism to have three portraits prominently sitting in his office. The way they’re arranged perfectly toward the camera feels blatantly artificial. No one would have them set up that way and yet they’re implicitly reminding him (and us) that the lives of the people he holds most dear are still in constant jeopardy. The worst part: he’s all but powerless to do anything about it.

Meanwhile, the police are shacked up in Al’s Dining Room kitchen as their command center itches for a decent lead. Cindy tries to head off her beau (a far too old Gig Young) so he doesn’t find out about the fugitives and get the family in more trouble. A garbage man gets it for seeing too much. Mr. Hilliard sweats it out waiting for a letter loaded with cash destined for his office.

One can easily surmise Wyler had great relish filming along the staircase because it all but visually summarizes the tension of the film. Stairs are all about space and the relationship of people to one another. It’s shorthand to explain an unbalance or shift in power. For Mr. Hilliard, this is about his family. That’s all that matters. For the policeman who’s just thinking about his reelection, it’s an entirely different scenario.

And what the picture does tease out is the idea that extreme duress often causes people to show their true colors, whether empowered by integrity or saddled by cowardice. In the end, a businessman living a so-called cushy life shows a fiercely defiant fortitude that ultimately holds his family together. It has less to do with the police or even the criminals that stakeout in his home.

In the end, it’s his own grit, determination, and will to protect his family that wins out. If the film is an exercise in suburban melodrama, it’s also a resounding testament to the human spirit as well. The scary part is that like The Hitchhiker before it, the story was partially based on real life events. Why is that frightening, you ask? It means real people were faced with these dire consequences. We saw what they did? Implicitly we must also beg the question, what would we do when the desperate hours hit us?

3.5/5 Stars

Rancho Notorious (1952): Chug-a-Lug

Rancho-Notorious-poster.jpgThe legend goes that the ever-meddling megalomaniac of RKO Pictures, Howard Hughes, insisted the film’s title be changed to Rancho Notorious because European audiences wouldn’t know what a “Chug-a-Lug” was. Director Fritz Lang, who was himself a European emigre, snidely replied they definitely knew what a “Rancho Notorious” was.

Regardless, Rancho Notorious doesn’t miss a beat with an opening close-up of a couple’s tender embrace. The lovers are pried apart reluctantly as Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) goes back to work as a ranch hand, leaving his best girl, Beth (Gloria Henry), to mind her mercantile store.

As he leaves, two strangers ride into town scowling around and leering at the pretty gal waving her love off on his way. One of the two thugs enters the shop to inquire about the contents of the safe, glowering over her lecherously as she reveals its contents. It doesn’t take much to extrapolate what’s next. You can fill in the blanks.

This sequence alone is a testament to the fact that the menace of Fritz Lang can even encroach on the colored palette of the western through music and foreboding shadow. With a woman now ruthlessly ravaged and murdered, it sets her man off on the trail seeking vengeance. But being the snake in the grass that he is, one of the marauders shoots his accomplice in the back before absconding with their cache.

Haskell makes it to their encampment just soon enough to induce the dying man to let out his final breath. The only tidbit he has to go on is the phrase, “Chug-a-Lug” so he goes on the trail again sticking his nose anywhere and everywhere people might have a lead.

More often than not it leads to a near-mythical lady named Alter Kean (Marlene Dietrich), tall tales of her exploits being spread all across the territory. Everyone from neighborly townfolk to old acquaintances gladly spin myths and regale the interested passerby with their recollections. Because while he’s interested, so is the moviegoing audience.

There were her days as a saloon floozie, racing with all the other gals on the backs of eligible young men and she had the pick of them all. In those days she worked for Baldy Gunner (William Frawley) though her employment was terminated prematurely. She was too rough on the customers and they were too fresh so she got the boot.

But not before running off with most of Baldy’s money thanks to the even-keeled strong-armed tactics of Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer) who holds that often touted distinction of being “The Fastest Gun in the West.” He, like Alter, could easily be cast as a mythical figure. Everyone wants to see him and take him down. He just wants to be left alone instead of having to shoot his way out of every town he wanders into. Their reputations precede both of them and in that regard, they are kindred spirits. They seemingly understand each other. Romance might be in the air as well.

Why does this matter in Vern’s quest? For that, we must look to the Election Day taking place in a wild and wooly western town where Frenchy is currently being held along with a trio of crooked politicians. The three men are all set to be hung the very same day if their political party gets overturned. The trills of democracy haven’t really reached this far west yet. Anyway, Vern gets brought in on some minor charge to get close to this outlaw and gain his confidence.

Finally, his assiduousness pays off, and he follows Frenchy to an oasis for wanted thieves, lascivious vagabonds, and societal outcasts. He makes it to Chug-a-Lug, an isolated horse ranch now run by none other than Alter Kean, in all her glory.

He now has a group of men to begin whittling down because, if his suspicions are correct, then his culprit is undoubtedly among them. For now, it’s just Marlene and the boys of the range and she whips them pretty darn good, around the card table and otherwise.

Theatrically, Rancho Notorious has the relatively unique distinction of being an interior western. Certainly, there are exterior shots but due to budgeting at RKO and what he was given to work with, Lang is forced to go the cheaper route. However, he leverages that handicap which does often give way to a fake and garish looking mise en scène to nevertheless create an unnerving world of tension and claustrophobia.

The space is crowded with thugs just ready to go off like sticks of dynamite. They just need a match to light them off and Arthur Kennedy is precisely that. Of course, Dietrich is quite the firecracker in her own right and always the focal point.

The main themes highlighted in the title song of “Hate, Murder, and Revenge” would be returned to time and time again throughout the western canon but they also tie nicely into Lang’s own filmography.

One moment that Lang’s camera brings these themes to light most blatantly occurs when Kennedy spies the broach he gave his dead girlfriend on another woman. His gaze jumps down the gallery of leering thugs (maybe they’re only grinning) all around him with each successive cut. It’s jarring and also makes it supremely evident what Vern thinks of each and every one of them. The rage burns red hot. But he keeps it under wraps for now.

For now, the only progression that seems evident is Vern slowly moving in on Frenchy’s turf. Relations all down the line get continually testy. What follows is a contentious bank job that suggests there is no honor among thieves. Meanwhile, Alter is selling her ranch and ready to pick up and leave the territory. The end is nigh. We must have the Gunfight at Rancho Notorious or better yet The Gunfight at Chug-a-Lug to wrap up all the loose ends.

While not quite on par with Johnny Guitar, Dietrich, like Joan Crawford, more than holds her own, still strikingly alluring and fiercely independent. She also earns herself an ending that evokes and, in some ways, surpasses Destry Rides Again (1939).

In full disclosure, I rather like the title Rancho Notorious because not only is it slightly provocative but it gives some indication of the people who reside right at its heart. People driven by vice, rage, greed, jealousy, and passion. Because regardless of the location or the genre or the characters, Lang’s pictures were always about these intense emotions and innate urges at the core of human beings.

One of them is a purportedly good man who turns callous. Thus, we must question if the very same proclivities don’t rise up within ourselves. Could it be we’re all capable of a little notoriety? We all require a place to hide out one time or another and we all desire a second shot at redemption. Of course, the Chug-a-Lug wheel of fate is not always so forgiving.

4/5 Stars