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.

 

City for Conquest (1940): James Cagney, Ann Sheridan, and Arthur Kennedy

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Upon being immersed in City for Conquest, it feels like a cast of millions because so many familiar faces make an appearance for any given amount of time. Surely, the most important coupling is James Cagney and Ann Sheridan who are paired much in the same way as Angel With Dirty Faces (1938), playing childhood sweethearts who end up growing up together.

The picture also provides a scintillating film debut for young Arthur Kennedy, forerunning his turn playing the younger brother to another boxer in Champion (1949), opposite Kirk Douglas. Cagney’s not a bad man to have for a brother either and their dynamic is one of the most compelling aspects of this relatively slight drama.

It all begins with a rather peculiar framing device with an all-knowing drifter (Frank Craven) posing his commentary on “The Big Apple” and the world of interpersonal relationships that exist all around him. Because each individual has different talents and aspirations, at its most instinctual level, City for Conquest is about the trajectory of each character in tandem to one another. Thus, the story is most concretely driven by its characters while being enriched by that prototypical Warner Bros. grit and street corner brand of atmosphere.

For one, Danny Kenny (Cagney) tries his luck in the boxing ring taking on the name “Young Sampson,” not necessarily because of ambition but for the pure fact, it puts grub on the table and provides means to pay for his little brother’s musical education. Backed by promoter Scotty MacPherson (Donald Crisp) and supported by buddies Mutt (Frank McHugh) and Pinky (George Tobias), he tenaciously makes his way up the ranks toward the welterweight title.

Although he has nothing to show for it yet, Eddie Kenny (Kennedy) has a knack for compositions and he’s moved his brother with his city symphony, despite his lack of musical knowledge, because music has the power to speak to even everyday folks on a visceral level.

Meanwhile, Peg Nash (Sheridan) is terribly smitten with Danny and yet in the same breath aspires to be a first-class dancer. She meets an arrogant yet talented bloke (Anthony Quinn) out on the dance floor and is enticed with a career just like she’s always dreamed about.

The girl breaks his heart as much as you can break Jimmy Cagney. He takes it like a man while still feeling betrayed. To add insult to injury, his climactic bout is rigged due to the resin dust illegally sprinkled on his opponent’s gloves. Not only does Danny unfairly lose the fight but his career is permanently terminated with his eyesight impeded for good. Eddie shouts for the senseless beating to end as Peg cries to herself over the radio broadcast besides herself over Danny’s loss. It affects Danny physically while the others are casualties of a different kind.

It’s all but inevitable that the picture will end in some gangster knockoff job with the boy’s big shot pal Googie (Elia Kazan) seemingly ready to give the crooked wrenches who tampered with the fight their comeuppance. And the side of the underworld set on the east river with bodies to dispose of certainly has its place. But the underlining factor is despite their struggles, our three protagonists are allowed to find a swatch of contentment.

Eddie is finally able to realize his musical ambitions and gain the repute of the masses in his first show while Danny and Peg are reunited to live life as they were always meant to — together. Though her dancing aspirations have been curtailed and his sight lost, their future remains shimmering with hopefulness.

One could easily comment that City For Conquest‘s themes riff off of Golden Boy in the way music and the boxing ring are juxtaposed, one next to the other. In this case, it’s the two brothers who represent the two seemingly incongruent worlds. And yet the biggest implication is that a rough and tumble guy like Cagney can still have a beating heart and a sensitivity for song even as he goes day in and day out pounding people in the ring. The two worlds are not mutually exclusive by any means.

We certainly know who our main players are but again it’s the robust and jovial nature of the full ensemble making it even more diverting. Ward Bond shows up as a disgruntled cop there, Charles Lane as a no-nonsense promoter here, and Jerome Cowan is ready to rib his competition over a few boxing ring bets. They don’t have to be the focal point because that’s not requisite for being entertaining. I greatly admire the character actors of old for what they are able to create even within meager means.

3/5 Stars

Review: The Lady from Shanghai (1947): Funhouse Film Noir

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Before I knew the word “auteur” I think subconsciously I began to realize Orson Welles was gifted with this kind of innate artistic force that cemented all his pictures together. It’s part of what made him such a terror to work with and simultaneously a genius of such mammoth accomplishments as Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil.

However, even his lesser-known pictures addled by studio meddling or lack of funds, bear his mark of visual ingenuity and singularity. Run down the line from The Magnificent Ambersons to The Trial and Chimes at Midnight and you get the idea perfectly. Of course, The Lady from Shanghai keeps this same company capably.

At its core is not just one luminary performer but two: Orson Welles and his wife at the time, Rita Hayworth. From a purely cinematic perspective, no one had seen either of them quite like this before. Welles acting as actor, director, and producer introduces the story in first-person voiceover cloaked in an Irish brogue. Meanwhile, Hayworth loses her trademark luscious locks to transform into a bleached blonde.

To look at its opening frames alone is to acknowledge that The Lady from Shanghai is noir in nearly every conceivable way. Further still, it never abates along these lines traversing a befuddling narrative arc. It ultimately fails to ever gain clarity while casting Michael O’Hara as a fated hero destined for some inevitable destruction as the narrative zips along with lightning-quick pacing.

He is instantly pulled into the entangling web of Rosalie Bannister though it’s as much a testament to the seedy characters in her stead than her own inclinations. Hayworth gives us an immaculate conception of a femme fatale who is in one sense deadly and still somehow trapped within her very existence.

Even as O’Hara’s concerns for her well-being rise, he only gets dragged deeper into the dark depths of the squalid world around him. Because this particular tantalizing siren is surrounded by a sea of ravenous sharks just priming themselves to rip each other to shreds. Even if he tells himself otherwise, he’s chasing after a married woman, biting off something much too big for him.

Invalid attorney Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) clings onto his “lover” like a trophy because the truth is, he has dirt on everyone in his life — keeping them right where they serve him best. It’s his shifty valet (Ted de Corsia), constantly lurking around, who surmises that tough guys always have an edge. The movie is filled with such shifty characters.

George Grisby (Glenn Anders) is the most unnerving as Bannister’s equally conniving partner. His cackling chills the bones while his continuous obsession about murder and O’Hara’s own scrape with it becomes a queer fascination of his. The reason is still left unknown.

Welles’ camera lovingly adores Hayworth. As she learns to smoke, picking up the habit after seaside excursions or basking in the sunbeams on deck. She the epitome of classic Hollywood allure. It was never her hair anyways. I think it’s something in her eyes gleaming with inalienable life.

However, I want to hate most of the close-ups — as a visceral reaction — because I rarely feel an actor breathing down my neck and yet Welles readily goes back to them again and again in a way that’s unnerving. The worst of them all is, of course, Grigsby.

In fact, Welles continually chooses the most perplexing camera setups. It’s such that you cannot help but allow his perspective to infiltrate your own and dictate how you see things. He’s allowed for no other way whether it be the harsh low angles, overhead shots or cutting between various close-ups to create the patchwork of a single scene.

O’Hara joins the jocund company on the yacht while the picture benefits from early examples of post-war on-location shooting sweeping through Mexico, New York, and ultimately San Francisco. Though it has its share of perceived opulence, not least among it the borrowing of Errol Flynn’s prized boat for the production, equally visible is a certain degradation and subsequent atmosphere that can be traced to Touch of Evil a decade later. It’s an unsettling juxtaposition to go right along with the menagerie of players.

And if O’Hara’s own shark metaphors are not augurs enough, Welles has the gall to envelop himself and his lover in an aquarium where the sharks are literally circling in the background, magnified to almost inordinate proportions. The figures are black contours facing each other cloaked completely by the darkness, framed by the panes of the tanks. On the whole, it’s a definitive image of pure chiaroscuro photography, completely indicative of their fatalistic state.

Though the director’s picture originally clocked in at a whopping 155 minutes, it was slashed down to an expedient 87 minutes, which nevertheless means there’s not a continuous line of lucidity running through the drama. Because through outcomes that mostly elude us, O’Hara finds himself on trial for a murder that came to pass by means that are never quite expanded upon.

All of a sudden, he’s fighting for his very life by some cruel reversal. The most incongruous part is the very fact there’s almost a sing-song quality to everyone else from Bannister to Grisby to the District Attorney and the Judge presiding over the case to decide O’Hara’s life.

The flippancy to it all is disconcerting. It’s like Welles and Hayworth are caught in the ghastly webs of noir melodrama and no one else has the least bit of concern. It’s only a game to them. The doleful drone of the shipyards moan as the jury deliberates and Bannister all but admits he’s set O’Hara up for the gas chamber.

But the final act is quintessential Welles given the luxury of two fine setpieces. The creme de la creme is, of course, the funhouse hall of mirrors which is pure directorial showmanship, stylized with gunfire, broken shards of shattering glass, and images of our stars refracted in disarray. Words cannot do it the justice it deserves. It stands as a final testament to a picture that’s plot is about as wonky, unresolved, and inconclusive as any noir piece ever was.

But if you’re like me you get the sense Welles placed the utmost care in the aspects of the film that mattered most to him, namely the visual elan. Because certainly, Lady from Shanghai is a narrative mess. There’s probably little hope of actually justifying all of its leaps and bounds.  And yet in the same breath, it’s equally difficult not to concede how visibly delightful a feast it is.

Will it satisfy everyone? Certainly not. But that’s a part of what made Orson Welles an unprecedented mastermind. He very rarely catered to others and as a result, his films are usually creatures of artistic invention all their own. There will never be another Orson Welles. The same can be said of any so-called auteur. That’s what makes them special — their easily attributed individuality. No one else is capable of making the same exact film. As it should be.

4/5 Stars

 

 

Review: Cover Girl (1944): Hayworth and Kelly

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In the thick of the war years, Cover Girl stands as a beacon of unadulterated Technicolor lavishness permeating the screen. It proved a fine diversion from the day-to-day, which was wildly popular in its time as a vehicle for beloved screen star and Pin-Up, Rita Hayworth. Watching Cover Girl now, it’s become a fitting marker in the constellations of Gene Kelly’s career and the movie musical in general. We can easily use it to chart his course, culminating in later endeavors of the 1950s.

Because while Hayworth is the most substantial star in director Charles Vidor’s movie, going from Brooklyn chorus girl to rising starlet of  Variety‘s Golden Wedding Girl Edition, Kelly was simultaneously given almost complete creative control over choreographing his numbers. He brought on a young man named Stanley Donen to help with the process. Already we have the roots of a partnership that meant so much for the exploration of musicals as a cinematic genre.

We also have music and lyrics provided by the heralded Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin offering up “Long Ago (And Far Away,” one of the most mellifluous love melodies of the 1940s.

Rusty (Rita Hayworth) has a contented little life working at the hole-in-the-wall nightclub run by her boyfriend Danny (Gene Kelly). They work hard with rehearsals always at 10 am sharp, do their thing at night, and the after hours are theirs to wile away dreaming.

Her endearing pet name is “Chicken.” I’m not sure if we ever find out why. But their best pal, a goofy song and dance man, goes by “Genius” (Phil Silvers) and we know that’s in jest. Nevertheless, he’s their jovial third wheel as they always go to the same late-night hangout, order a heap of oysters, and go pearl diving. It’s a tradition and a habit but it also represents the dreams they haven’t quite reached yet.

“Make Way for Tomorrow” is a joyous romp preceding the palsy-walsy camaraderie of Don, Cathy, and Cosmo in Singin in the Rain (1952). It puts itself in line with all the great studio street corner numbers using extensive sets to create an indoor-outdoor world perfect for peppy outbreaks of dance. In his foresight, Kelly would have some of the set walls punched out so they could go about the number more or less uninhibited and it does wonders.

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So we see that Rusty is happy in this life and yet she still has personal aspirations. She tries her luck at a cover girl job. Cornelia “Stonewall” Jackson (Eve Arden with her usual verbal panache) is the executive tasked with culling through all the eligible hopefuls who walk into her office looking to impress. It’s a real cutthroat pack of wolves. On a side note, it’s fascinating to watch actual cover models from the era go from screen to pages of recognizable magazines. Oh, how things have changed in 75 years.

It’s Stonewall’s boss, magazine editor John Coudair (Otto Kruger), who picks Rusty as his newest star because she shares an uncanny resemblance to the girl he once loved in his youth, one Maribel Hicks. So there you have it! Rusty seems to have hit the big time. She puts Danny’s club on the map as their “Put Me to The Test” performance is a shining success and you’d think he’d be cheering for her.

But it’s his male prerogative to feel under attack. Suddenly she doesn’t need him and maybe she will leave him for the suitor and stage promoter (Lee Bowman) who is looking to move in.

Here we have an uncanny Deja Vu scenario as past and present overlap because by some strange coincidence Maribel Hicks was Rusty’s dear departed grandmother. Granted, it’s a weak piece of plotting but regardless, we have a spurned Gene Kelly on our hands. What it gives way to is the original shadow dancing although reflection dancing is more like it.

It was one of the earliest Kelly innovations allowing him to dance alongside himself, the devil on his shoulder telling him he’ll never get Rusty back. It’s this lovely melding of character progression through the art of dance. Proving it can function elegantly as both.

In the end, Rusty realizes what was good for her grandmother, who lived a satisfying life, is good enough for her and she runs off from her wedding day to get back with a woebegone Danny. It’s a happy ending as the gang’s back together. Consequently, Hayworth would elope with her next husband Orson Welles around this time. But the real-life results ended up being far more tumultuous.

Pal Joey, which Kelly had starred in on the stage, was to be the next pairing of Hayworth and Kelly but alas it was never to be. It finally came to fruition over a decade later with Frank Sinatra, Kim Novak, and Rita Hayworth but it lacks the magic this earlier proposed version might have coalesced. What I was left with is the fact that Hayworth has quite the distinction. She danced alongside the two greatest that film ever had to offer: Astaire and Kelly. She more than holds her own as a scintillating star in her own right.

3.5/5 Stars

You Were Never Lovelier (1942): Hayworth and Astaire

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Buenos Aires conjures up a very specific Rita Hayworth film — the one that remains emblematic of her career and also typecasted her — you probably know it too, Gilda (1946). Thus, when You Were Never Lovelier opens in the same city, there’s this instant evocation in the parallel worlds. Because if these pictures take place in the same location, in theory, then cinematically they are vastly different.

Our first introduction is a face wedged behind a pair of binoculars. Once they’re pulled away we see Fred Astaire looking glumly as his horse trots by to the finish in last place. It sums up his struggles with gambling. He is a loser. Why does it matter? Though he’s a famed dancer back in New York by the name of Robert Davis, in this foreign locale he’s just a hoofer in need of some cash.

Quite by chance, he runs into his old pal Xavier Cugat who forewarns him that local club owner Eduardo Acuna (Adolphe Menjou) is quite the disgruntled customer. He’s not very easy to please. His constantly harried personal secretary Fernando, a distant relation, proves a perfect example. Consequently, burlesque comedy veteran Gus Schilling just might be the most hilarious addition to the cast based on his huffy indignance.

But just as Cugat predicted Acuna isn’t impressed by Davis nor does he want to sign him. Right now he’s simply ecstatic that his eldest girl is just about to be married. Next, in line is his daughter Maria (Hayworth) who has her pick of all the boys in town, though she never commits to any of them nor shows more than mild interest in their advances.

It all almost feels too suffocating as an insufferably schmaltzy family drama. There was enough room in my heart for Three Smart Girls (1936) even Four Daughters (1938) but another such movie might be pushing it. Ingenue sisters bustling about, mothers providing sniggering inane conversation and the father is not even as lovable as Charles Winninger or Claude Rains, who instead holds onto a ludicrous tradition that daughters must be married off in order. Worse still, he manipulates his daughter into falling in love with someone who doesn’t exist. All in her best interest, of course.

Astaire and Hayworth couldn’t get together fast enough. But when they do its hard to take our eyes off so why bother getting stuck on all the various mishaps? For instance, the fact that Menjou is the hands-on father, he’s doing his best to manufacture a romance for Maria through boxes upon boxes of orchids filled with notes professing the love of a secret admirer. Its only function is offering a point of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

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Despite a less than cordial introduction, Hayworth sees Astaire with new eyes when she mistakenly believes him to be her mystery man. Father feels like he’s in a bind and so he orders Davis to play the part and let her down easy. He’s not about to let his daughter get married to HIM!

Astaire keeps his physical talents on ice for a time barring a few foot taps, getting his first real showcase at a wedding where he flexes his vocal cords. His pure tonality and diction made them perfect pipes for innumerable American standards. Though he doesn’t heat up his taps until 35 minutes into the picture.

His first substantial meeting with Ms. Acuna and her family turns out far differently than any parties planned, namely Mr. Acuna or Robert. “I’m Old Fashioned” sums it up as our two stars go out on the veranda for some quality one-on-one time and share a dance together.

Hayworth sports the most seductively saucy raised eyebrow leading Astaire in one exchange to ask her, half-jokingly, to turn around. Staring at her face — beautiful as it is — melts him to jelly. He can hardly get his thoughts together in her presence. There’s also the dissonance of what he’s been instructed to do by Mr. Acuna and how he feels for this girl.

Despite purposefully forgetting to invite Mr. Davis to a fancy dress Anniversary Gala, an invitation manages to find its way to Robert regardless, setting up the final act in this tempestuous matchmaking affair. Acuna is in dire straits. The game seems to be up and yet the suitor he had long wanted to get rid of, falls on his sword and helps the other man save face.

Never fear. We know that our two stars are fated to be together. Later Astaire comes clomping around in a suit of armor and promptly tumbles right off under the fair maidens bedroom window. And yet his girl gladly takes him anyway derailing her white knight complex and dancing off into the distance as nice as you please.

As much as the mechanisms of this story drive me up a wall, I cannot dismiss Astaire and Hayworth. Its a minor vehicle for both but a spotty delight nonetheless. The very fact that Rita Hayworth herself considered it a personal favorite is merit enough. One might imagine that it’s every young dancer’s dream to keep time with Fred Astaire. It was no different for Margarita Carmen Cansino. Gilda was passion twisted up in perverse contortions. You Were Never Lovelier allowed it to be innocently saccharine instead, like a dream of childhood. Sometimes we need those movies.

3.5/5 Stars

Colorado Territory (1949): High Sierra on Horseback

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For me, it’s fascinating to consider directors who did not simply direct remakes but they actually reworked their earlier films. Prominent examples are, of course, Alfred Hitchcock, Yasujiro Ozu, Cecil B. DeMille, and Frank Capra, just to name a few.

The reasons could range from any number of things. Maybe they could command higher production values or harbored a desire to reexamine or improve on themes they had tackled previously. In the case of Howard Hawks, he even amazingly returned to the same basic narrative three times over as Rio Bravo, El Dorado, and Rio Lobo respectively. That’s quite the feat even if it initially appears a tad repetitive. However, watch the films and it does feel like you are seeing an altogether different entity each time, albeit with varying degrees of success.

Raoul Walsh’s Colorado Territory fits somewhere in there as a western that very much has two feet to stand on and the fact it was based off the director’s earlier work High Sierra, starring Bogart and Ida Lupino, feels nearly inconsequential. It’s not so much that there is no space to begin comparing the two. It’s more so the latter film, given its new cast and a new location, genuinely feels like an entirely different animal. Yes, we still have Walsh at the helm but the canvas and the language being utilized is essentially different. So from thenceforward, I will treat it as such.

Walsh is no slouch when it comes to western scenery capturing the raw majesty of the rock faces as men on horseback make their way across the planes of God’s country. This certainly is no gangster movie. The distinctions are made straightaway.

We meet Jeff McQueen (Joel McCrea) for the first time in a jail cell where he’s been stowed for his notorious exploits as a bank robber. However, an old friend keeps a promise and gets him out of the clink so he can pull one last job.

It feels like an uncharacteristic role for McCrea, in one sense, but he still fills the boots of his character with his typical principled outlook. McQueen, at this point, has had time to think and favors settling down and carving out a new life for himself with a stretch of farmland, a pretty wife, and a life of honest sweat and toil.

On an outgoing stage, he makes the acquaintance of a hopeful fellow from back east (Henry Hull) who’s also looking to make a new life for his daughter (Dorothy Malone) and himself out west. His philosophy is epitomized by the statement, “The sun travels west and so does opportunity.” He’s intent on finding the Promised Land and even as his daughter remains slightly skeptical, their life appeals to McQueen deeply.

What follows is an epic introduction of our antihero’s attributes, single-handedly righting a runaway stagecoach while fending off incoming bandits with an assured fearlessness. Even in these moments, McQueen cannot completely disown what he is or shed the years of experience he has accrued. He’s a hardened and whip-smart man whether it’s on horseback or handling a revolver. He’s a real man’s man.

So when he finally arrives in the rubble of a ghost town, serving as a hideout, he’s quick to cut the two young bucks waiting for him down to size. One’s your prototypical hothead (John Archer) looking to have it out at the drop of a pin and the other (James Mitchell) is strangely eloquent, though no less treacherous.

In his vast history of bank jobs, McQueen’s met many like them and it speaks to something that he’s probably the only one who made it out alive. Everyone else is either dead or rotting in prison. He’s not a man to take chances or make mistakes because if he had, he would have been dead long ago.

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It’s part of the reason, despite his compatriots’ objections, he tells their gal pal Colorado (Virginia Mayo), a fiery former saloon singer, to leave their company. He’s not afraid of her getting in the way. On the contrary, he’s worried the other two outlaws will find reason to quarrel over her. That’s the last complication he needs now.

And yet Colorado impresses him and ultimately convinces McQueen to let her stay. She’s pumped full of a dogged tenacity making her persistently tough. He likes that and, of course, she’s beautiful because Mayo is sweltering even in her earthy, lacquered state.

If the dichotomy is not obvious already, the weathered outlaw has two girls and two lives calling out to him. He must dispense with one for good before he can take up the other for all posterity. At this point, the story is barreling towards the long-awaited bank job. We know what it means.

As the events unfold, he’s always one step ahead of everyone moment after moment. It’s thrilling to watch really because McQueen’s such a savvy, completely pragmatic man. This constant awareness makes him likable. He feels as much of a hero as he’s a villain and that’s as much as a testament to McCrea gritty candor as anything else — a straight arrow as he always is.

No matter, he outwits his two accomplices and flees the posse looking to string them up with the price tag on his head growing steadily bigger. There is a sense that time is running out on his dreams. He also comes to find things were not as good for his stagecoach acquaintances as they expected. For once in his life, he begins to gamble.

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First, on the prospect they will take him in even as a fugitive on the run and then in his own struggles to protect Colorado. What we get is literally Virginia Mayo versus Dorothy Malone as they have it out in a stellar log cabin struggle, the picture beginning to spiral toward imminent doom.

A harrowing finale takes us back inevitably to the Valley of Death with McQueen climbing over cavernous rock faces in a last-ditch effort to flee his pursuers. It’s easy to see the foregone conclusion. We don’t want it to be but it’s hopeless and Colorado Territory gives us that odd sensation only certain stories can effectively manage.

It made us empathize with a purported scourge on society, wishing that he might find love and escape to a life of anonymity as he had always dreamed. But we knew before it ever arrived such a dream was never to be. Does the ending surprise us? Not necessarily. That doesn’t make it any less bitter as two tragic hands clasp each other one final time in a desperate attempt to stay together.

4/5 Stars

Canyon Passage (1946): Ole Buttermilk Skies

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Portland, Oregon 1856 could lead us to many places but in these circumstances, it guides us to an enterprising mercantile store owner named Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews). Though he’s the main driving force behind the story, there’s little doubt this is a tale of pioneering far grander than a single individual.

As such, Canyon Passage is the epitome of a hidden gem, lined with talents who generally does not garner enough credit today for their many fine attributes. First of all, is Jacques Tourneur the French director who made a name for himself in a career laced with genre pictures and this one is no different, boasting a spectacular visual vibrancy.

The opening is exemplary, showcasing his skills as a master world-shaper, taking a western town that we only spend minutes in and through torrential rain pouring down, streets of mud, and various interiors, he’s already created a space that feels tangible to our eyes.

He continues this yeoman work throughout the story, which is a credit to its hardy terrain. We have sumptuous outdoor panoramas with rolling plains and expansive skies above. Then, there’s the verdant underbrush of the forests captured, the lush greenery, and even the interiors of cabins and shops have a rustic beauty about them that feels real.

Our trifecta of leads all proved substantial stars at one point or another beginning with Dana Andrews, then Susan Hayward, and Brian Donlevy, yet for whatever reason, it seems their names (much like their director) get lost behind a host of far more visible faces.

Nevertheless, they earn their due and in all other regards, Walter Wanger’s production is knee deep with equally memorable supporting players like many of the greatest westerns of the age. Hoagy Carmichael meanders about doing this and that with his mandolin and donkey, singing an occasional song, such as the instantly unforgettable “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” which captures a bit of the folksy milieu wafting over the picture.

Canyon Passage is also ripe with love triangles beginning with Logan and the future wife of his best friend, Lucy Overmire (Hayward) who he has been tasked with bringing home. They share a mutual affection but Logan respects his buddy George Camrose (Donlevy) too much to steal his girl; they’ve been through far too much together for that.

Instead, he sets his eyes on the pretty young woman (Patricia Roc) who was taken in by a genial frontier family headed by Andy Devine and his wife. They would gladly welcome anyone into their fold and it’s no different with Logan as he looks to make strides with Ms. Caroline.

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However, if this was all Canyon Passage was about, it would lack a sizable conflict. But Logan must simultaneously deal with the local instigator of trouble Honey Bragg (Ward Bond as a burly villain) who has previously had more than a few run-ins with Logan and he’s not looking to make nice.

In fact, the whole town congregates in The Golden Nugget saloon after Bragg challenges his adversary to a showdown to have it out once and for all. The full brutality of such a society sets in with the men crowding around ravenously for a good show of pugilism to get their blood stirred up. A hint of lawlessness has been injected into the air.

But George also has demons of his own, namely, a gambling habit, which he can’t break, owing money all across Oregon to the point his friend bales him out only if he promises to quit. Still, the urge for wealth and constant comparisons with Logan’s continual success, make him continually discontent. He goes straight back to the cisterns that prove to be his undoing.

Like some of the best westerns by the likes of Ford or Hawks, this one feels, at times, like it’s about nothing much in particular and yet the paradox is it’s about so much that’s meaningful, speaking to the humanity at large. There is a local house-raising for a young couple just starting out and they marvel at all the folks who come to help them out. Because, for all the charitable neighbors, this is an investment in their own livelihood.

We see crystal clearly. What is going on, in front of our eyes, is the fleshing out and the building up of an entire community. Then, we receive a showcase for men of principle going against a world that seems so violent, brutal, and utterly untamed. Instead of cowering in fear or remaining apathetic, they look to confront it in some way.

However, beyond this, we have another broad conflict that’s age-old. The chafing between those who began with the land — The Native American tribes — and then the white man expanding westward with a belief they deserve a chance at a new life. In the eyes of those who started there, these newcomers are desecrating their home. In the eyes, of the pioneers, they are making it into more of a home.

When human beings wind up in close proximity, with varying viewpoints, beliefs, and practices, there’s bound to be repercussions and there are. Watching Canyon Passage you realize these very things were affecting real people, men and woman, families and the children within them. It feels like a truly eye-opening scenario.

Bloodshed ensues and against such beautiful exteriors, it only makes the scarring of the land and the bodies all the more inescapable. There’s something inside of us saying this is not the way it was meant to be.

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What makes Canyon Passage quite powerful, frankly, is there’s no single point of contention or an individual goal in mind. It’s this all-encompassing drama with grand themes — grandiose in both scope and scenery — that concern a whole host of people trying to make lives in the western territories. You can begin to understand most everyone’s point of view. Amid the destruction and unrest, it’s easy to recognize the problems at hand. Surely, the West was meant to be more than this. Fights and warring, razing and killing.

But the frontier has always been an arena for hardship. Death by any number of ways. It’s the resiliency people lived with that meant something. In Canyon Passage, there are the same kind of folks who don’t go skulking around in their troubles but instead rise up to make the best of the next day to come. One might wager a bet it’s one of the bygone markers of the American spirit. Hopefully, we haven’t lost it all yet. We could probably still use some of that just as we could still use ambition and love, friendship, and fellowship with an underlying empathy for our fellow man.

Only when “The End” flashed upon the screen did I realize, in my former days of channel surfing in vacation hotel rooms, I once caught the tail-end of Canyon Passage. There again was an indelible image I distinctly remember, Hoagy Carmichael ambling along on his donkey, through the forest, knocking back a tune. It made me distinctly mirthful like an old friend just recently discovered again. If this film isn’t considered a classic by now then it should definitely be in the running.

4/5 Stars

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947): Danny Kaye Does Thurber

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In many ways, it seems short stories are the best sources for feature-length films because they allow the narrative to take the spark of an idea and extrapolate and mold it into something new and hopefully ingenious in its own right.

Author James Thurber didn’t seem to think that was the case with this adaptation of his short story plucked from the pages of The New Yorker in 1939 and turned into a vessel of lavish Hollywood entertainment by Samuel Goldwyn. Reading his story, in itself, gives a fascinating insight into the film version. For one thing, the “pocketa-pocketa-pocketa” onomatopoeia is translated from page to screen.

However, it’s also very apparent watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty that Goldwyn, for obvious reasons, tailored the material to his star Danny Kaye. There’s certainly no point of contention there and the story probably is better for it.

In this version, Walter Mitty is a Pulp magazine editor and being unmarried, it’s his mother, not his wife, who is constantly nagging him to stop dawdling and do his best to not be so absent-minded. If you actually think about it, the fact this homely mama’s boy is brainstorming racy detective novels, exotic love stories, and horror romances is a bit ironic. Though given his flights of fancy, it’s not all too unbelievable.

Kaye’s spry verbal acrobatics are as limber as ever finding his voice contorting, shrieking, and hiccuping in all manner of ways through all manner of dialogue, monologues, and songs. He also progressively plays up his nervous shtick as he goes clunking around offices, with pigeons flying about, continually fearing for his life while also receiving the ire of his conceited boss.

These developments come with the acquisition of a little black book that very much resembles the one he uses to maintain his daily regimen. Except this one is very important to a beautiful woman named Rosalind van Hoorn (Virginia Mayo) as she attempts to acquire some priceless Dutch jewels.

The best elements of the narrative, plucked from the fanciful comic short story, have Mitty swimming in and out of daydreams. And of course, alluring Mayo plays the grateful damsel in every scenario, cast as his dream girl and later found in the flesh when they cross paths for the first time.

His imagination has him taking on all sorts of occupations from a captain on the high seas to a world-class surgeon in the operating room of a hospital. Then, it’s a daring Air Cadet in the RAF with impressive impersonation abilities. The persona of the Riverboat Gambler made me realize Snoopy has a bit of Walter Mitty’s whimsy in him. It’s not too far a stretch to surmise Charles M. Schultz was all too familiar with the picture. But onwards and upwards as Walter daydreams himself into being a women’s hat designer and finally a western hero. Each scenario conveniently brought to life in front of us. This is the film at its most inventive.

But the comedy of the original story, you soon realize, is that Walter Mitty really is a mundane individual. There’s nothing particularly special about him and yet he takes the banalities of daily life and turns them into something thrilling to ignite his hyperactive imagination. Maybe implicitly it’s about being stuck in the monotony but more overtly it’s simply a tale of a normal, average, everyday person who, when you pull back the curtain, has a deeply imaginative fantasy life. Perhaps there’s something neurotic about it but more so it’s simply goofy.

Although watching Danny Kaye run around with Virginia Mayo in what feels like an inept amalgamation of The Big Sleep and North by Northwest has its intrigue, you begin getting away from its true inspiration. Because the lovable peculiarity of Mitty is that he’s so very unextraordinary and his life is so menial. However, by inserting this cloak-and-dagger stuff, although the film gets more exciting, it loses something of its main conceit.

The best single scene by far finally comes at the tail-end where Mitty’s lives collide and he finally gains a backbone. Calling out all the small-minded, tiresome, annoying quibblers in his life. It’s Walter’s way of firmly sticking it to the insufferable doldrums he’s been subjected to.

But it is interesting how films or modes of media, in general, are very much indicative of their times. Take Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” being turned into Apocalypse Now (1979) in the post-Vietnam years and most certainly the remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013).  It reflected the escape from mid-life crises that many Americans no doubt crave at a certain age. Again, it’s part of the overarching narrative but not necessarily the true essence of Thurber’s original idea. Funny how that happens.

3/5 Stars

The Breaking Point (1950): Updating Hemingway and Hawks

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Michael Curtiz, to all those who revere him, has far more than Casablanca (1942) on his resume. It’s stacked with classics including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Mildred Pierce (1945), White Christmas (1954) and even a less-heralded picture like The Breaking Point.

Those familiar with the original source material, from Ernest Hemingway, might also realize an earlier version of the story was made starring Humphrey Bogart opposite his future wife, Lauren Bacall, in her crackling debut.

Director Howard Hawks helmed To Have and Have Not (1944), which proved to be very loosely based on the eponymous material indeed. About the only elements comparable between the two renditions are the oceanic atmospherics with salty seafaring types and other undesirables mixed together liberally. Though donning a new name and casting a new star in John Garfield, it’s easy to make the case that The Breaking Point is a lot more authentic.

To Have and Have Not is a delight because it is such a cinematic creation with indelible characters filling up a world, not unlike Casablanca, ironically. But its successor unfurls qualities that feel less done up and artificial in a still delightfully atmospheric Hollywood fashion.

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One could wager it begins with a location that’s very much a real place. In fact, it’s a place I have known quite well in my lifetime. I was first tipped off to its whereabouts when Garfield gives money to his daughters to go see a movie and tells them to be careful on Marine Ave.

As I only know one Marine Ave., I double checked the film’s shooting locations and looked ever more closely at the exteriors. All this confirmed the fact The Breaking Point was shot in and around Balboa Island in Newport Beach, California. I know the area well as I used to spend some summer days there as a kid. The exteriors are most obvious when our protagonist comes back from the bar, walking by the docks, and he’s already day drunk.

We have yet to describe any of the narrative but already we have something vastly different from its predecessor. The main character is a family man, a seaman, and simultaneously trying to drown his sorrows in alcohol. What adds insult to injury is the fact Harry Morgan (Garfield) was a highly commended Navy Seamen during the war. Except, ever since coming back from the war a hero, he’s never been a somebody and that’s hard to take for a proud human being.

All he knows is the sea and so he’s tried to make a go of it obdurately, working furiously to subsist off his boat but it seems like everyone is pushing his head underwater. Try as he might, he can never get ahead. He needs dough for the reasons we all do. To pay the bills. To put food on the table. To take care of his wife and daughters.

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Soon Harry’s peddling a would-be fisherman and his gal pal (Patricia Neal) off the coast of Mexico. Of course, the shyster runs out without paying and leaves his girl behind. Harry’s been played for a sucker, stuck on the wrong side of the Mexican border, without any fare to get home. He’s kept his nose clean thus far but times are desperate. In a dive joint, he gets approached by a slimy undesirable, chomping on cigars and proposing a shady business proposition. Momentarily, our hero has been submerged back into the world of Bogart and Hawks.

He’s tasked with sneaking a group of Chinese passengers into American water illegally. However, following an altercation with his contractor (Victor Lee Seung), with Ms. Charles (Neal) and his mate Wesley (Juano Hernandez) aboard, he backs out leaving the Chinese behind. He’s escaped for now, his mores still intact.

But that doesn’t help him when he gets home. The Coast Guard soon confiscate his livelihood. His wife takes on work at home to try to compensate and he has one last chance to save his boat from being taken away from him in order to make ends meet. He feels compelled to take a second job bringing him back into cahoots with the same cruddy opportunist named Ducan, albeit reluctantly.

It’s in these dire straights where it becomes evident The Breaking Point is on the same moral plane as The Bicycle Thief (1946), where our protagonist is forced to make horrible decisions, all for the sake of his family. Should we blame him for the deadly finale that follows? It’s so difficult to enact decisive judgment.

Surely Patricia Neal has the flashy role because she’s the flirtatious blonde who’s never tied down and seems ready to get with anyone. But Phyllis Thaxter, even as she competes with the other woman, dying her hair in an attempt to win back her husband’s affection, has a softer more vulnerable tremor in her voice that feels so very transparent.

When we look into her eyes and see her get angry with her husband for not throwing in the towel and taking up a life on her father’s farm, the concern there is so very real. We understand it because it’s plaintive and deceptively unprepossessing. Because there are deep wells of beauty inside of her making the film’s romantic dynamics that much more intriguing.

John Garfield maintains the working-class persona he always seemed to flaunt so easily but here he’s surrounded by a family — two daughters and a loving wife, making his struggle all the more relatable.

He’s also a loving father bringing his daughters trinkets from his trips, cradling them in his arms affectionately, and slipping them change so they can go to the picture show again. The same goes for his wife. Even as they struggle and fight fairly regularly, over the kitchen table, there are other moments where he makes his love and faithfulness supremely evident. He compliments her looks and the new hairstyle she’s trying after the girls criticize it.

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Because the one thing The Breaking Point is not is a story of infidelity. Sure, it comes close on multiple occasions with Neal playing the tantalizing siren but Garfield unreservedly loves his wife. He’s honest with her in that sense, even as he keeps other secrets on the side. He thinks it’s a way to protect his family and his friends. The waters of the film are undoubtedly choppy, even perilous; that’s partially what makes the solid rock of the marriage at its core all the more refreshing.

Any relationship with a firm foundation is predicated on transparency. There’s no other way if you don’t want to harm your spouse and push them further and further away. I admire The Breaking Point deeply for this unflinching portrayal of marriage that, while not always polished, feels inherently real.

4.5/5 Stars

House of Strangers (1949)

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Joseph L. Mankiewicz will always hold the prestige of a writer over a director and yet working off a script by Phillip Yordan, he guides the picture with an assured hand. House of Strangers manages to be intermittently stylish and deeply evocative highlighted by fiery performances. Ironically, it begins like a good many of his most well-known works with an extensive flashback.

It stems from a story that has deeply familiar roots in the American experience full of the old vs. new world dichotomy, immigrant lives, love, and hate. The expansive Italian family rendered so memorably in The Godfather films comes to mind most plainly and there’s little doubt House of Strangers sows some of the same seeds cropping up again over 20 years later in Coppola’s classic.

Thematically, it’s about a culture that is extremely family-oriented but also hierarchical. It’s right there in the title. With how he runs his household, Gino Manetti (Edward G. Robinson) has tended a “house of strangers” by picking favorites and alienating his other sons. They are tired of constantly being ridiculed and doing his bidding, while their ambitious brother Max (Richard Conte) gets their father’s full attention, going so far as to herald his upcoming marriage to his sweetheart (Debra Paget). The other Manettis never get such fanfare.

As might be expected within this context, the story relies on powerhouse performances and Robinson is astoundingly effectual as the patriarch. It never really feels as if he’s playing at something (the same cannot be said of Hope Emerson unfortunately) but he takes on the persona of someone who does only what they see fit to do. His mode of thinking and acting is very straightforward. There’s nothing diplomatic about his dealings and that garners him many friends but also plenty of ill feelings.

Joe (Luther Adler), the oldest Minneti brother, is discontent with the way his father takes him for granted, keeping him as a bank teller with little responsibility in the family business. He’s worried about his image with his wife and the neighborhood. Their father’s favoritism only makes it worse.

Then, there’s Pietro (George Valentine) the brawny brother who doesn’t have the greatest brains and so his father keeps him on as a security guard. The boy’s also been moonlighting in the boxing ring but he receives his father’s disdain for having a soft belly. So he’s got his own burning grudge, that and the fact Gino is always making him change the records at family dinners. Tony (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.) is the pushover and it’s easy for dad to keep him in his place.

In a sequence that could almost be plucked out of It’s a Wonderful Life, the bank is closed down in the throes of The Depression and there are riots in the streets broken up by the police force. But in the aftermath, Gino is put on trial for his loose business practices that more than likely bent numerous federal regulations. He never did care much for them.

If his sons were behind him it would be easy enough to beat the rap but with only Max in his corner, it becomes an increasingly strenuous battle. In the end, the beloved son shields his father but ends up being disbarred and served a prison sentence for jury tampering.

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Waiting for him on the outside is the former client that he’s come to love, Irene Bennett (Susan Hayward), and out of love she confronts the old man and berates him for what he has unwittingly done to his sons, worst of all Max. Hayward’s performance is poised, at first sultry and then full of fight as she battles for what’s hers. She’s one strong woman in what seems a sea of benevolent ones.

The inevitable finally happens and Gino dies but he has left behind residual bitterness that still seethes between the siblings. The other three remain jealous of Max’s hallowed place at their father’s right hand and he sees their takeover of their father’s bank as seditious.

Conte seems often criminally underappreciated and best-remembered as a casualty of Michael Corleone. But do a survey of his career and you realize how crucial he was to the film noir movement serving up a versatility that found him in sympathetic roles as well as villainous turns running the gamut from Call Northside 777 (1947), Thieves Highway (1949), and Whirlpool (1949) to Cry of The City (1948) and The Big Combo (1955).

On a side note, this picture would once again briefly pair Conte with Debra Paget romantically though, oddly, she was only about 16 at the time. The studio’s executives must have seen something…

However, with House of Strangers Conte straddles the line between most of his other roles. Ruthless when he needs to be, capable of a grudge even, and still generally affectionate of the ones he loves. It’s arguably his most far-ranging and nuanced performance of the whole lot and he does a sterling job.

Because to drag The Godfather comparison out further, if Robinson is Vito, in some regards, the most prominent figure in the film, then Conte’s Max is Michael, the son who soon comes into his own and becomes the new center. He owns the picture just as Pacino ultimately became emblematic of The Godfather as a dynasty.

The repercussions of brother pitted against brother are evident. The forces of their father are still working on them almost unconsciously now. It’s been built into how they perceive family. But in a single shining moment, Max wrenches his clan out of this self-destructive horror that their dear old departed dad seemingly cultivated. Instead, he lays the foundation for something more substantive even if the healing comes in incremental baby steps.

Old habits die hard but that doesn’t mean they can’t be eradicated…Maybe. More importantly, he hears the impatient honk of that same horn out on the adjoining street. He’s still got his girl. The film’s happy ending deserves a noirish asterisk. Some amount of loss must come with any gain.

3.5/5 Stars