Bob Le Flambeur (1956): Melville’s Noir Heist

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“Montmartre is both heaven and…hell.” 

While Melville would continue to cultivate his own unique canvass and pulp sensibilities, Bob Le Flambeur, as a slightly earlier work, shows its deep abiding debt to the American noir cycle. Because it was at this juncture in time where analogous crime pictures like Asphalt Jungle, Kansas City Confidential, and The Killing were still being churned out in the States.

Bob The Gambler must fit into this same conversation with how it instantly calls on voiceover and submerges itself in the throes of darkness as its constant palette of choice. Melville’s yet to have a Jean-Paul Belmondo or Alain Delon to hang his hat on, as it were (the latter actor was turned down for an early role). Still, he does have Bob (Roger Duchesne), more than meeting the prerequisites of a noirish hero.

He’s silver-haired with piercing eyes. His dress is nice, impressive, but not altogether flashy. Someone says of him, “Both young and old and already a legend.” Even as the voiceover draws us into the world — and the landscape in itself becomes not only a metaphor but a character — we meet a dame too, all before getting to the focus of our story.

Exteriors at times feel harsh and dilapidated. Trash collects in the gutters of the streets, and no one’s doing the city any favors, dumping their refuse wherever they please. At times, interiors, like a gambling joint or a kitchen, are so spare they play as a unique aesthetic all their own. Bob’s home is full of paintings and paisley wallpaper designs. The eye strays to the tiling, which along with the wallpaper, aid in creating this satisfying geometry of checkerboards, shapes, and patterns filling out the film.

Bob is forever the focal point guiding the movie’s progressions. In one scene he’s ready to shell out money to those in need, but he has his own code — he’s no fan of pimps — and since the cops are looking to run one in, he’ll willingly leave Marc to the police dogs.

For someone with such enterprises and acquaintances, Bob still manages an oddly amicable relationship with the police chief. He’s gone straight for 20 years, after a famed bank job he was forced to pay penance for. He’s done his time and reformed. His noble side has come out on more than one occasion.

But this is Bob The Gambler and so a bit of card play, roulette, and chance should be a part of it. Certainly, Bob more than lives up his name, always winning big on the horses only to lose it the same evening on something else. The capricious nature of it all somehow entices him.

When he hears from a buddy that the local gambling house is full up on cash, he makes a near-instantaneous decision. He’s going to rob it. It seems such a drastic way to end 20 years living under the law, and there’s no real inclination of why he decides this. It’s somewhere in between the lines there, and Melville has left us to figure it out. All we know is he is resolved to do it.

Simultaneously, he moves on with the planning measures. All the paces. The inside man. The financier. Layouts, schematics, gathering the crew together. Each is a single step in this methodical process. Bob proves himself to be no slouch when it comes to the details.  An abandoned junkyard becomes his chessboard to lay out all the pieces in real-time, helping all his crew visualize their parts.

However, despite such intricate planning, it only takes one chink in the armor to ruin it. She’s a young woman — only a girl really — and Bob feels somehow responsible for her. He doesn’t want to see her get harmed and, subsequently, hardened by a life walking the streets.

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He treats her well, gives her money, even lodging in his apartment, and he expects no favors in return. After all, it is his young colleague Paulo who is madly in love with her. It’s this that causes him to run off his mouth. He wants to impress her and keep her for his own. Little does he know there are others. She’s not tied down by any stretch of the imagination, and her feminine wiles find her moving up the totem pole, from cigarette girl to hostess to a floor show main attraction.

Meanwhile, the squirrely croupier who has vowed to be their ticket on the inside has a prying wife who catches wind of the scheme. At first, it appears she might be one of the moralistic types, but it becomes apparent she’s even more of an opportunist than him. She wants more of the cut and so if we can go out on a slight limb, she is our second femme fatale.

The police commissioner receives his tip and readies his men, that is if the information is in fact true. Bob seems all but oblivious to these details. True enough, he learns the girl let the word slip, and he gives her a going over. And yet, according to plan, he gets into his tux and heads to the casino. There are only two options: either it works or it doesn’t.

There’s not a gunshot until well into an hour of the picture. When it comes is not important; simply knowing it does is something. No question there’s a weight to the action because when you’re waiting for a gun to go off, instead of having them blasting every few minutes, the impact is more apparent. It punctuates the action.

Fully cognizant of the tension wrapped up in the heist, Melville cuts between faces waiting in cars or sitting in bedrooms — all a part of this plot in some way, shape, or form — and Bob still keeps on gambling at the roulette wheel.  Gambling becomes not just a distraction for us but for Bob as well. Surely, he cannot have forgotten? Is it possible? I’m not sure. One could hazard a guess; it becomes his undoing, but hardly in the way that you might initially expect.

The tragedy in the final moments of Bob Le Flambeur is a different strain verging on the height of comic irony. It might easily elicit a chuckle from a few for the sheer chance of it all. It’s a textbook example of how a heist can go utterly wrong and somehow come out right in another way. When I say textbook example, it might actually be the only one just like this, and this is the film’s final trick. It’s indelible in its own right.

Melville came into the gangster genre with deep reservoirs of understanding and his own applied sense of understated style. Just as he stole and borrowed from others, he would, in turn, become the influence for the generations to come — not least among them the Godards and Truffauts of the world. For the time being, he lived with minor acclaim, but the film community would learn his name soon enough. Although, even that, he borrowed from another man.

4/5 Stars

Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (1954): Gabin’s Aging Gangster

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On only two occasions have I had the pleasure of watching a Jacques Becker film, and I hold him in the highest esteem even based on this admittedly meager sample size. It seems a fitting observation to acknowledge how closely he was tied to one of France’s foremost titans, Jean Renoir, serving as his assistant director on a number of his projects including A Day in The Country and The Grand Illusion. 

The overt connections between the so-called poetic realism of Renoir and brethren like Marcel Carne seem intuitive, not merely in visual style and content, but going so far as casting some of the same actors — in this case, a Renoir regular like Jean Gabin.

While completely seamless transitions are hard to come by, it’s not all too difficult to go from Renoir to Becker and see how his work bleeds into the crime pictures of Jean-Pierre Melville and then the Nouvelle Vague and so on and so forth. If nothing else, it is a tangible reminder that all cinematic artifacts find their roots in ancestors. Nothing exists on its own completely outside the undue influence of others. As it should be.

Touchez Pas Au Grisbi, translated to “Hands Off The Loot” in English, rarely gives much pretense of being a crime picture. Sure the people within its interiors are criminal types; it’s easy enough to decipher just watching and listening, but this is a film reminding us how mundane even their lives can be.

If there is anything half resembling a prototypical inciting incident it would be the brief moment when the veteran gangster, Max (Gabin), scans the newspaper to note a cache of gold bars have been stolen in Orly. Nothing is said of it but the implications are obvious, and Becker’s movie is made up of such moments.

The director never telegraphs anything to the audience, remaining content to examine scenes, playing around with seemingly trivial or unimportant details, and letting his story rely on such details for its enjoyment. The trick in the initial scenes is the feeling we are driving toward some inevitable end while Becker is content to coast along. As a Hollywood-bred audience, we wait a bit impatiently for the next beat to rev up the action, but the real game is right in front of us the whole time.

In his own way, Jean Gabin has the weight of a Brando or a Jimmy Cagney. He can be “The Godfather,” and we believe it, and yet there is something amiable dancing in his eyes this time around. Of course, he’s nothing like those other men — never unhinged and always settled in his surroundings — but he brings the same boldness of being.

When he’s in a room with others we want to watch him and see what he will do. There is an instant gravitational pull toward him. He can carry these moments like the greats. It’s not to say he can’t be violent, even brutal. Burning like hot coals at times. Slapping people around. Still, he’s always measured.

Touchez Pas Au Grisbi opens as a series of scenes (like most movies) where we go from a restaurant to a car to a club. Two gangsters, including Max and his cohort Riton, are spending time with their pleasant female company (Jeanne Moreau and Dora Doll) — it’s the customary social life of people in their business — they have to make the rounds and keep up appearances.

We are privy to this as an audience and maybe we are waiting for something to happen in the conventional sense. There’s a conference in a backroom were Max pays his respects to a couple of work associates, one a thuggish gangster Angelo (Lino Ventura), the other a bespectacled nightclub owner Pierrot (Paul Frankeur). In another accompanying sequence, he walks in on Angelo with his partner’s girl Josy. Still, he doesn’t do anything rash. He takes it in stride as Josy defends her decisions. In a movie where a plethora of lovely ladies (including Miss America Marilyn Buferd) exist as eye candy, Moreau manages a few defiant acts of rebellion.

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We follow Max home only for him to be tailed by a shady ambulance with two “physicians” looking to take him in. He nonchalantly walks up to his flat, pulls his gun out of a drawer, and wards them off with his piece, darting off into the night to pay a visit to his accomplice Riton (dour-eyed Rene Dary). Call it action if you will, but it’s all a bit discombobulating, never smooth or modulated. This in itself speaks to something. Nothing is written out on a billboard for us. We have to infer and do the work on our own. Becker is content with this arrangement.

Finally, Max and Riton are sitting around a table once again, crunching on food disconsolately. Why are they so bleak? It barely seems as anything has happened to them. Perhaps this is the point. We realize for the first time their discontentment with the life of crime. They are old, at least for such a young man’s racket. They’ve seen it all and as Max says, they’re fed up with it all. More than any amount of danger, it’s a nuisance staying ahead of the pack.

As with any such person, whether thief, gangster, gunslinger, or outlaw, it becomes very difficult to run away from a lifestyle once you’ve been marked by it. The world you initially chose reciprocates by choosing you, and it always has a habit of catching up with you.

For now, they watch and wait. Never before have I witnessed a robber gargling as he gets ready to bed down in his pajamas or later on reaching into the cupboard to pull out the bedclothes. It’s practical, but surely, this is not kosher. Unwritten rules say cinema is life with the boring bits cut out. Becker is brazen enough to make a gangster picture with the dull bits stitched back in. In his own creative patchwork, they inform his characters.

We’ve all but forgotten about their payload. That is until Max pays a visit to his uncle, who also happens to be his shady dumping ground. Haggling over hot money has even lost its luster. It takes all the fun out of having wealth.

Most importantly, we are reminded Max is human. It’s what previous generations — namely the Greeks — would have termed hamartia. This is his fatal flaw. For us, it simply makes him more relatable. He’s a sentimentalist — no longer The Godfather figure. He is fallible. His weakness has been ousted. Surely these themes slowly progressing through the story are not unfamiliar ones about aging and friendship in a dirty business. But they have their own crucial perspective — an individual point of view.

One of the most gripping scenes occurs in a cellar. They’re shoving a young kid down the steps for spying, ready to work him over. He gets a few smacks. In such a banal world it feels all the more terrifying, clamped in our faces with glowing close-ups. There’s little in the form of action up to this point, aside from the film’s fairly explosive climax, as a kidnapping triggers a mini gang war.

Again, Becker appears more interested in the outcomes than the actual events. What is leftover would normally be termed superfluous scenes, but once more, they hold true to the essence of the characters. The ending gives way to these curious moments with Max back around a lunch table with a beautiful woman, on the phone, and hearing some sad news. The melancholy sets in. It all matters. Some might argue there is no movie at all. For me, there’s no movie without Gabin.

4/5 Stars

Classic Hollywood Baseball Movies

Gary Cooper and Babe Ruth

Given its hallowed place as American’s original national pastime, I thought it would be worthwhile to share some of the best baseball movies classic Hollywood ever offered during its heyday.

I’m not sure if the industry ever made a baseball masterpiece during the Golden Age, but it did highlight some of the great talents of the era both on the field and in front of the camera.

If nothing else, they play a bit like comfort food, between fairy tale romances and warm humor, highlighting men who overcame obstacles to become world-class talents in the Major Leagues.

Pride of the Yankees (1942)

Here is, arguably, the standard-bearer of all baseball movies of a similar ilk. Gary Cooper stars as another famed All-American superstar, Lou Gehrig. Teresa Wright costars as his loving wife Eleanor. The Iron Horse became one of the most formidable ballplayers ever, despite being overshadowed by Babe Ruth. His final days, stricken with ALS, remain a stirring tragedy to this day. There’s hardly a dry eye as he “considers himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth” only to walk off the field for good.

It Happens Every Spring (1949)

This unabashed comedy relies on a crackling premise: a university professor comes upon a curious new formula in his laboratory. No, it’s not flubber but methylethylpropylbutyl. It’s most noteworthy trait is its repellence of wood! Soon the bookish baseball fan is touting his pitching abilities and goes from a nobody to carrying his ball club toward the pennant. Ray Milland stars alongside Jean Peters and Paul Douglas.

The Stratton Story (1949)

Here is a picture certainly in the mold of Pride of The Yankees. This time it’s James Stewart playing Monty Stratton with June Alyson as his crush and future wife. Although Stratton is hardly as well-remembered today, the heart of the romantic drama involves his rehabilitation after he undergoes an amputation. Through grit and determination (and the support of his wife), he made a comeback from his injury to pitch another day.

Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949)

Although it has much more in common with the other MGM musicals of the day, between Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra on the ball field (making up a Tinker to Evers to Chance combo with Jules Munshin), and Esther Williams, it’s hard not to enjoy this bright and cheery Technicolor singalong. The shakeup of new female ownership is a good excuse for sparks to fly and quality entertainment to abound courtesy of Busby Berkeley and Arthur Freed.

The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)

There are not necessarily a lot of dramatic thrills to this feature adaptation of Jackie Robinson’s life, but unlike all these other movies, there’s something distinctly special about Jackie portraying himself. With Ruby Dee as his steadfast wife Rachael, we watch Jackie as he is signed by Branch Rickey and rises up the ranks to break the color barrier in baseball, becoming a stalwart of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ team even as he faces an onslaught of prejudice and intimidation. He’s the definition of a sports hero.

Angels in the Outfield (1951)

It plays as a slight and fluffy fantasy story with a demonstrative big league manager (Paul Douglas) receiving some angelic intervention only if he agrees straightens up his act. He goes from being universally reviled by the world to a newsworthy curio. As he starts to change, the team’s fortunes pick up, and romance flowers between him and Janet Leigh. There’s not too much more to it. Donna Corcoran gives an adorable portrayal of a young girl who can see the angels.

The Pride of St. Louis (1953)

The arguments for making a movie about the life of Dizzy Dean seem somewhat slim. Granted, he was a thoroughly colorful figure, born in the backwoods of the Ozarks only to become one of the big leagues preeminent pitchers along with his brother Paul. Dan Dailey and Joanne Dru form a chemistry of contrasts, as Dizzy learns what it is to love someone else and have his will crossed. It’s hardly on par with Gehrig’s or even Stratton’s career trajectory, at least in purely Hollywood terms, but it’s an agreeable story from top to bottom.

Fear Strikes Out (1957)

Here is a baseball biopic that takes the conventional formula while slotting in a younger star in Anthony Perkins to portray up-and-coming outfielder Jimmy Piersall. Far from having his career behind him, it was very much a current event highlighting the ballplayer’s battle with mental health problems, in this case, bipolar disorder (although it was not described as such initially). The two crucial relationships in his life are with his overbearing father (Karl Malden) and his wife (Norma Moore).

Bonus: That Touch of Mink (1962)

While it’s not explicitly a baseball movie, this New York Rom-Com has one of the great baseball cameos with Cary Grant and Doris Day joining the Yankees’ dugout only to see their famed trifecta of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Yogi Berra all unceremoniously tossed from the game by the agitated umpire. Although it’s hardly as enjoyable, Jerry Lewis’s Geisha Boy similarly features cameos from some of the LA Dodgers’ ballplayers from 1958 for the west coast aficionados.

Man With The Gun (1955): Mitchum The Town Tamer

man with the gun 1.png“I’ve seen some cures worse than the disease.” – The Doctor

The opening images set the tone. It’s a sleepy afternoon in a ghost town. There’s a boy with his dog. The dog starts yipping at the boots of a rider cutting through town. In an instance, the merciless killer shoots the dog and rides on unperturbed. His calling card: a shoulder holster.

His actions go off, quite literally, like a gunshot, causing the whole town to stir and jump to their windowsills. It’s got them frightened and for the time being, there is no obvious solution aside from letting the gunman ride on unimpeded as he prowls around for a local tyrant named Holman.

Almost in response, soon another man (Robert Mitchum) rides into town, and in his wake is a much different temperament. He too makes his living with a gun — not a marshall or a sheriff — he’s what they call a town tamer. He works fast and demands free reign, such that he’s not beholden to anyone. It’s how he manages to run the scum out of town and make towns worth living in. However, to get the result, it requires fighting fire with fire.

Of course, it takes us a while to learn all about him. For a time, he’s just a new face making the rounds, getting to know people, including the town’s blacksmith Saul Atkins (Emile Meyer), while still keeping a tight lid on his private affairs.

In this regard, Man With the Gun is reminiscent of Wichita in how it unfolds. Although, in all manners of atmosphere, plotting, and thematic ideas, the other picture comes out looking far superior. This says more to the praise of the Tourneur-directed Joel McCrea vehicle because Man with The Gun still manages a few moments of flair in its own right.

What it might be best at is building up its regimen of stock characters and places. The world itself is just another riff on noted conventions, but familiar faces make it a quality retreading all the same.

Emile Meyer is their undisputed leader — a workhorse character actor in all sorts of roles — but I also relish spotting the likes of Jay Adler, Claude Akins, even the ever-reliable Burt Mustin manning the hotel desk. And of course, the scarred visage of Leo Gordon deserves to be canonized with the mugs of Jack Palance, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, and a handful of others in the pantheon of 1950s reprobates.

Meanwhile, the local Palace, a steamy saloon run by a Frenchman (Ted de Corsia), gets their supply of pretty girls from a local businesswoman (Jan Sterling). She’s precisely the kind of strait-laced personality you wouldn’t expect to get tied up in such a line of work. It takes all kinds. Her troop includes the noticeably ditzy Barbara Lawrence, while a youthful Angie Dickinson gets to play one of her wry counterparts.

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This is all mere groundwork for the coming attractions. Tollinger is installed, rather uneasily, by the local governing body, headed by the disgruntled blacksmith and family man. Somehow, despite his self-assured nature and a pedigree to back it up, the town is wary about backing one man against many. They aren’t so much assuaged as they are perturbed when he proceeds to gun down two thugs, who are running with the unseen, iron-fisted Holman.

Likewise, a proud young man, who’s been threatened, isn’t about to let someone else fight his battles, even as his plucky bride-to-be, Stella (Karen Sharpe), asks Mr. Tollinger to keep an eye on her beau. His response is noncommital, and Jeff Castle gets taken, after already sustaining a gunshot wound.

The dynamic is not explored fully, aside from a community dance, but there is a hint of some romantic feelings between the older man and Stella. Because he is a full-fledged man, even as her fiancee is still growing into his masculinity. She still sees him as the boy she’s grown up with. As added complication, Tollinger also happens to have another relationship in his past to seek out…

That, and cleaning up the streets, keep him more than busy. He gets the young upstart back in a trade while enforcing new gun laws, then a curfew. The townsfolk are grumbling all the time at these infractions on their rights. Another very calculated decision follows when Tollinger sets fire to the local house of sin, coaxing the enraged proprietor, Frenchy Lescaux (De Corsia), to come at him. This comes to fruition even as his relationship with an old flame starts nipping into previous unresolved wounds.

All the while a bright-eyed out-of-towner is watching everything with interest, twiddling his thumbs, capped with a bowler and feet propped up lazily. His demeanor is far from hostile, but there’s something disconcerting behind his eyes. He’s too amiable to not have an angle.

True enough, Holman is looking for retaliation on the town tamer, exploiting his greatest weakness, which seems to be a gentlemanly soft-spot for women. After all, this feels like one of the prerequisites for a western hero. They must be a strong and silent type with a dose of gallantry. So it is with Mitchum.

The cathartic shootout comes, and the town is “tamed” as much as it can be. Man with The Gun settles into a happy ending that arrives all too easily. For all the interesting dilemmas, either implied or touched on, there is not enough attention given to make them fully resonant.

It becomes necessary to take this sagebrusher at face value, and given all the alternatives, it’s probably too derivative to be a totally gratifying experience. However, if you’re fond of Robert Mitchum, give it a watch because he is and always will be the same. It’s to his credit. I will stop short of saying he makes a mediocre picture great, but without him, there’s not any point of connection.

3/5 Stars

Vera Cruz (1954): Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster

Below the Mexican border, during Antebellum days, a diverse array of Americans find themselves in the middle of the fight against Maximillian of France. Vera Cruz is far from a history lesson, however. It need not be. Still, it plays as an important footnote in a different type of history altogether, that of the classic western genre in a current state of evolution, jutting ahead into the 60s.

The script is not always phenomenal, but what it does have is an Aldrich-like penchant for the cynicism of noir. It starts to make even more sense when you consider Borden Chase’s pedigree: a fine row of Anthony Mann westerns. And yet the good sense of amusement overshadows everything else. This is how it still manages to remain a product of the 50s (which isn’t necessarily bad).

Its other readily available and beneficial assets are star power: the pairing of Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster fits the bill. Then, the on-location shooting does so much to elevate the environmental credibility. There is no other way to make this picture feel truly robust aside from actually finding your way down to Mexico. It’s not that it’s a wholly authentic experience, but at least something in these locales breathes of some form of reality.

Lancaster has the beefier, more intriguing part as Joe Erin, but Gary Cooper (Ben Trane) is able to bring his even-keeled strength to a new generation of westerns, and it serves the picture splendidly. It’s paramount that the two stars act as the utter antitheses of one another while still managing to be opposite sides of the same archetype.

Their garbs still plant them squarely in the traditions of olds, Cooper in the light colors of an undisputed hero and Lancaster game to wear the pitch-black clothes of a two-bit bandit, who would shoot a man in the back and hold children hostage.

Due to Coop’s presence, I couldn’t help but feel Vera Cruz is somehow reminiscent of the adventure films of old like Lives of a Bengal Lancer. There is a similar sense of camaraderie here and our main characters are able to blow through their mission on their own personal valor, even as the locals only purpose seems to be that of collateral damage.

As hinted at before, Vera Cruz is also an early forerunner to a future generation of westerns, all but losing the luster of the mythologized west for something grittier, more graphic, and in some ways, more stylized.

This is the lineage that will lead us to The Magnificent Seven, Sergio Leone, and The Wild Bunch Et al. The presence of Charles Bronson and Ernest Borgnine in a pair of minor thuggish roles are a convenient nod to their future counterparts. For that matter, even Jack Elam would get into Once Upon a Time in the West.

The picture can generally be characterized by two distinct tones: giddy in one moment and equally tense and unsentimental in the next. If you mentally draw up any partnerships or rivalries in the picture, you’re probably apt to see it. It’s incredibly fluid. This precedent is effectively established when Erin growls at his pack of thugs that they aren’t even his friends. Instead of ganging up on Trane, he welcomes him aboard into their merry company.

In other words, he doesn’t show favoritism, nor does he harbor any kind of sentimentality. It’s both an asset and a curse. Always game for a new gun to come around, but equally intent upon looking after number one. His sole allegiance is to himself.

In their attempts to sell themselves out as mercenaries in the Franco-Mexican War — potentially to Marquis Henri de Labordere (Cesar Romero) — they find themselves trapped. Rebels poke their heads over the side of mission walls, guns pointed menacingly down on them.

One must only dip back into the memory bank to remember a similar visual in Butch Cassidy. But of course, in this picture Coop is still infallible and by most accounts, indestructible. Talking his way out of predicament with casual diplomacy and whipping out his six-shooter only upon provocation. He’s entered the grimy, blood-spattered world full of its ambiguous tones, and yet he still remains stalwart. One of the last remaining bastions of the archetypal western hero.

If anything, Vera Cruz signals the decline of his reign over the West, even as it manages to have a wagon full of fun. They show their prowess with a Winchester rifle in the courts of Emperor Maximillian, only to be entrusted with a tenuous mission to escort a Countess (Denise Darcel) to Veracruz. Their valuable cargo winds up being more precious than they first envisioned when they discover it’s loaded up with gold bullion.

The gold becomes the driving force worthy of all sorts of double-crosses and easily rearranged allegiances. There are those driven by greed, others who want the kingdom, and still others, the most noble of all, who want to return the nation to its rightful rulers.

In this last act, the patriotic Juarista and the French forces face off with all the fervor you can imagine. The editing feels surprisingly quick for a day and age when breaking 10 seconds on an individual shot was not altogether uncommon.

Aldrich, in his first big production, fused with the talents of cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, boasts a picture with a lot of frenetic energy to offer. It is an imperfect, at times, disjointed effort, but it willingly takes hold of the bridle and rides the story to a worthwhile conclusion.

There are ample visually striking moments to reference, from a column of men on horseback fleeing across the plains and then, in the climactic moments, gattling guns rattling the terrain with bullets. Cannon volleys follow in earnest as a charging onslaught of men look to take the Bastille, as it were. Clouds of gunpowder and smoke hang in the already dusty air.

This is purely on the macro level. Overlaid with Erin’s relentless ambitions to acquire the gold for his own, and Trane looking to do anything in his power to keep him at bay. It comes down to the fated face-off, all but bubbling under the surface from the first time they ever laid eyes on one another. Do you really need to guess the outcome? See it for yourself.

The final emblematic images are of a ravaged battleground strewn with dead bodies. Widows and orphans scurrying to find loved ones and survey the damage. Who ends up with the gold at this point feels inconsequential. The conclusions drawn might as well be the cataclysmic effects of avarice and war. Though Vera Cruz has enough wherewithal to manage a decently good time going about it. This might be an unfeeling observation to make but, once again, it also remains a fitting portent for the future.

3.5/5 Stars

Sierra (1950): A B-Movie in The Mountains

Burl Ives, knocking out the title ballad in his instantly recognizable tones, is the welcome mat laid out by the film. The setting is slightly novel. High in the hills and mountainous crags is the crib for our story. Sierra gives numerous hints at its modest budgeting. This is no grand, windswept epic and yet it does not need to be.

It opens with our leading loner Ring Hassard (Audie Murphy) who finds, of all things, a girl in the underbrush. Living an isolated existence as he does, the curt young man is slightly distrusting of human beings. It doesn’t help that they meet after she has scared away some wild horses he was stalking.

This is Sierra Vista. Hassard lives in the solitude with his father (Dean Jagger) raising their stock of horses and enjoying a simple life away from the prying eyes of the town miles below.

They have few acquaintances and fewer friends. One man who might fit the bill is the itinerant apothecary Lonesome (Ives), traveling lazily by mule, strumming away, with a tune for every occasion. I’m rather fond of Ives’ sleepy ditties, and the western was made for such asides, though there is quite the multitude. After Jeff Hassard is injured by a bucking steed, it’s the old-timer who patches him up. However, it’s only a maintenance job.

Ring continues with their work single-handedly, and in one representative encounter, he runs into a lowdown horse thief named Big Matt (Richard Rober), who unfortunately finds himself on the right side of the law. In another turning point, the irrepressible Ms. Riley Martin (Wanda Hendrix) gets ambushed by a rattlesnake and a fearless Ring shoots the poison out of her arm. It breaks with any form of reason I’ve ever heard of. Regardless, it sends the story hurtling toward a new conclusion.

He breaks his lifelong vow to never go into the town of Sierra Vista. Soon enough, people are lauding his quick thinking, and, of course, asking questions about where he materialized from.

When word gets out about him and his unfairly maligned father, a narrative has already been written about them.  The town knows only reputations. He is a menace to society, and they all but confirm his prevailing distrust in his fellow human beings. Foregoing all the normal systems of law and order — suspicious of all types of authority — he doesn’t do himself much good. Between her uncooperative client and a ridiculing public, Riley’s position as counselor to the accused is not one to be coveted.

Soon thereafter, the sheriff takes calls for a posse of men to comb the adjoining hills. Meanwhile, one of the town’s shifty characters, with a claim to our eligible heroine, looks to commit to a stealthy operation of his own with Big Matt — parallel to the law’s endeavors — and far more dubious.

Ring finds himself having no other choice but to play fugitive and outlaw — the card that has been dealt him — joining with a clan of curmudgeon mountain men, who have been regarded with the same animosity. They form a ragtag band of renegades to do battle with seemingly unassailable odds weighing against them.

The ending is a bit lame and too clean, but it can hardly be expected for the movie to have gone toward bleaker terrain. A B-movie is meant to be cheap and agreeable to the audience. Anything potentially alienating would be a hard break with accepted convention. All flaws aside, it’s a decent vessel for Audie Murphy. Idle curiosity might well lead one to Sierra if nothing else.

Some fitting subtext of the movie was the real-life, brief yet tumultuous matrimonial bond between Audie Murphy and Wanda Hendrix. Their union would be horribly short. Though married during filming, they would already find themselves separated by the time of its release.

One can only hazard a guess the relationship was exasperated by Murphy’s undiagnosed PTSD from his war experiences. Honestly, he was only on the cusp of his fledgling career, not so far removed from his premier status as America’s ultimate war hero, and the demons that come with such a pedigree.

If the eyes are the so-called window to the soul, Audie Murphy’s is burning with a maelstrom of fierce emotion, oscillating from melancholy and glints of warmth to tormenting darkness. His eyes are his greatest attribute and would remain so for all of his movie career. Action pictures like war films and westerns suited these attributes. He could probably speak more with his eyes than with any line of dialogue.

3/5 Stars

The Violent Men (1955) and Rockefellers on The Range

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The Violent Men is an age-old tale of cattle wars on the range. The local apothecary warns about Wilkerson a man from the long tradition of land eaters. There are only two choices: run or stand and fight.

Before we ever see him, his cronies are messing around town. In the town’s main street the Sheriff is gunned down in the back by a hotshot gunman (the always smirking Richard Jaeckel). Everyone either turns away or is in the coattails of the local tyrant. We learn so much about them from their inaction. This is a community that has acquiesced to a thug and conformed to a type of general passivity.

No one is willing to stand up or speak up or do anything involving gumption because it means sticking their neck out and being vulnerable to the consequences. Glenn Ford starts getting perturbed, realizing he is just as liable as everyone else.

He’s been stewing to the point of exasperation, even as his future in-laws and his girl coax him to mind his own business and think of their extended future happiness. Again, it’s this constant mentality of the individual over the common good. Maybe it’s a product of reading a book on the Red Scare, but I cannot help but see it as a parable of benevolent socialism versus the tenets of a particularly ruthless capitalism.

For well-nigh 20 minutes the name Wilkerson is all but mythologized and lifted up as one of the most ruthless, bloodthirsty names on the frontier; he is Rockefeller on the range. With such a build-up, there must be performances to hold up the bargain. Fortuitously the movie delivers with not only Edward G. Robinson but Barbara Stanwyck as well. Of course, Stanwyck is no stranger to the West, and she’s quite adept at exuding this certain balance of necessary toughness and femininity.

Robinson is hardly the image of a western cattle baron (he was, in fact, a late replacement for Broderick Crawford), but he still has the presence of Edward G. Robinson. The fact he is crippled with a pair of crutches and still so ornery makes for an intriguing character biography. He completely subverts conventional expectations.

Meanwhile, Dianne Foster feels a little like Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep — the first impression is important — and she leaves the audience wary of this family’s pedigree. They’re not allowed to have one normal member.

Next, comes the entrance that is of utmost importance. The hobbling old codger himself. He’s particularly boisterous and hard-nosed when it comes to land dealings and taking over the valley. Behind closed doors, his wife is equally cunning and calculating, along with his kid brother (Brian Keith). His main enforcer (Jaekcel) follows up murder in the streets with another grisly murder on the range as a message to the holdout, Parrish, and anyone else brazen enough to stand up to Wilkerson.

For the 1950s, it’s quite the brutal exhibition as they whip a man, rope him up, nearly choke him to death, before leaving him for dead. Words do not do it the justice it deserves.

If Wilkerson didn’t sanction these egregious actions, he gave Cole (Keith) free reign to enforce their presence on the territory in whatever manner he deems applicable. The crooked deputy, a seemingly obliging fellow, has the system conveniently tipped against anyone who dares stand in opposition. There’s no way to win.

The movie might easily end here if only our hero were to wash his hands of the situation and move back east. He loses his bride-to-be for the sake of his own private moral integrity. Whether it’s because this is Glenn Ford or his character, need not be important. He resolves to stay, playing the fool, only to draw in his foe and retaliate.

Soon he’s taken his army training and put it to good use, fighting a war against his neighbors who, by all accounts, seem more formidable. What he has are determination and tactical advantages. The distinction of who the actual foe is remains dicey.

Robinson is just the blustering frontman. Cole blasted the range open with his pack of thugs. Martha Wilkeson pulled the strings, working all the while in her husband’s shadow.

Cinemascope offers some expected monumental views of the west compete with all the trimmings of the great outdoors. Ironically, the actual montages of the stampedes, burnings, and killings are relatively uninteresting. It might as well be stock footage from other pictures, and it probably is. The most invaluable moments are delivered by the characters, served up just as much as psychological warfare than any physical grudge match.

As the Wilkerson girl perceptively berates the men in her climactic stand, at their core is this barbarism, causing men to constantly be driven by a senseless need to kill one another for a lousy piece of land. Merely to prove something to themselves and others. What makes it worth it?

There is the subsequent realization this is not wholly good versus wholly evil. There are corrupt people, selfish ones, yes, but even Ford, who is supposed to act as our moral center, has no qualms about retribution and annihilating his enemy, since they were first poised to kill him.

It makes for a volatile experience, and the leads are a worthy ensemble, capable enough to suggest these particular nuances and personal ambitions. The irony remains in the title. On a cursory glance, it’s a lurid eye-catcher, but it also happens to be an apt descriptor for a movie with a main conceit about the implications of such escalated violence. The Violent Men takes its most obvious attribute, only to turn it right on its head. The surprise punch is a much-appreciated admonition about violence in the guise of popular entertainment.

3.5/5 Stars

Gunman’s Walk (1958): A Cain & Able Western

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“I think it’s high time for this state to remember its history!” – Van Heflin

The whistling intro to Gunman’s Walk is one of the most insouciant beginnings to a western you might ever see. Regrettably, the opening lines of dialogue, penned by Frank S. Nugent, don’t stand up on their feet. It’s easy enough to understand Tab Hunter is a sharp-tongued pretty boy with a big chip on his shoulder. His reticent more unassuming brother Davy acts as his complete antithesis. This is the source of immediate tension, even visually, with the casting of such disparate actors as Hunter and James Darren.

Given these elements, the words coming out of their mouths aren’t of much use. It’s not simply in the opening arguments either but in their later verbal skirmishes. Even the brief interludes of candor, they are not always capable of holding a scene. They need a Van Heflin to work with, and he certainly makes them both better and more compelling. Because it is their conflict and confused relationship with him speaking to all other facets of the movie.

Gunman’s Walk finds its footing not only with the introduction of Heflin, but also when it settles into a story with ideas fueling relationships. We come to understand it to be more nuanced than mere bickering. Because with every fight there is an underlying trauma of some form. In the nucleus, you have the archetypal dichotomy between the two male progeny with divergent paths ahead of them. They are like Cain and Abel.

It’s their father who looks to guide them toward the straight-and-narrow or at least the western equivalent, which means molding them to be like he was when he was a boy. In fact, it goes further still. He wants to be one of the lads, even chiding them to call him by his first name.

Quick drawing, carousing, having a good time, and generally cultivating a “boys will be boys” mentality are all part of his regimen as their sole guardian. One boy shies away from this based on his natural tendencies and the other rebels more blatantly still, determined to be his own man, greater than his dad ever was.

Beyond their initial quarreling, we begin to comprehend the spirit of the brothers when they wander into the local mercantile. Tab Hunter notes the pretty “half-breed” working inside, and it’s the immediate barb to suggest this is also a drama about racism.

It cannot help but come front and center when Ed pushes a half-Sioux off the cliffside as he selfishly sprints after a prized white stallion, with no consideration of human life. The man killed, named Paul, happens to be the older brother of Clee (Kathryn Grant). She works in the mercantile and faces the debilitating, inbred bigotry of the town day in and day out.

What must come out of this is a trial. Because two bystanders speak up on behalf of their friend. They think it was murder, and it might as well be. But Lee will have none of it. He’s not about to let his son get railroaded by two natives.

It goes far to suggest a type of privilege not only earned arbitrarily through skin color but also in attributing who is memorialized in the history books and how they get remembered. Lee’s demonstrative cry to remember history is itself a highly ironic evocation, given the circumstances. Just what version of history is he talking about? Undoubtedly his version.

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There’s a trial to follow and of course, Ed gets off. A crooked witness comes to his defense — upon hearing what a generous soul Hackett is — though the conniving passerby is no better than a horse thief. Meanwhile, Davy finds himself in a Romeo and Julietesque romance, at least in considering his father would never agree to a union with a Sioux.

Ever disconsolate, Ed dodges jail once only to end up there again, this time for gunning down his father’s blackmailer. His attempts to frame it as self-defense fool no one in town and Lee is flabbergasted. Why would he do such a thing? Ed feels like his father has gone against his own principles. They’re further apart than they have ever been.

There is no turning back when Ed blasts himself out of jail, murdering another man, with a posse now out to get him. Lee has no choice but try and beat them to his boy — to try and do anything he can to shield him. One wonders if it’s already too late.

The final showdown feels like a foreign dynamic — father pitted versus son — there is no other way to go about it with the law bearing down on them. It ends unceremoniously, though the emotional toil remains heady.

Tab Hunter absolutely blows through his clean-cut, boy-next-door image and tramples on it with the hooves of his horse for good measure. As a result of constantly fighting the demons of his own malice and being cast in his father’s shadow, he remains all but unrepentant to the last frame.

Each subsequent film I see featuring Van Heflin cements my estimation of him as a giant among the unsung heroes of Hollywood’s elite. This is by no means a great western, but in the moments unearthing some semblance of deep emotional truth, it is Heflin who guides them with a craggy vulnerability. The final two scenes are pure class. They tear your heart apart.

It’s quite the statement given that during much of the film we wouldn’t mind tearing him limb from limb. He hobbles off with his boy and the boy’s wife, and we actually have sympathy stored up for him. It’s an extraordinary achievement in a relatively minor western.

3.5/5 Stars

Last Train from Gun Hill (1959): Douglas Vs. Quinn

the last train from gun hill.pngThe action begins with a chase of sorts, except with the men pursuing a buckboard, carrying a woman and a young boy, it’s more like a game of cat-and-mouse. As a Native American maiden and a pretty one at that, they look to have their way with her. A horrible incident follows, and it’s a fairly frank depiction for the 1950s.

Meanwhile, a local Marshall (Kirk Douglas) can be found regaling the kiddos with a story about the olden days, 10 years prior. It’s strangely light in contrast to the preceding scene. This is precisely the point because never again will we see the Marshall with such a jovial demeanor. We must wait only minutes to comprehend how our pieces fit together. Because this young boy, his son, races to call upon his father. It is his wife who has been brutally ravaged and left for dead.

There are only a couple of clues to go by. The first is a deep scar on the cheek of one of the perpetrators. His wife did not give up without a fight. The second is an abandoned horse with an ornate saddle. He knows it well. It belongs to an old friend: cattle baron Craig Belden.

Because the man who raped Catherine Morgan was Belden’s gutless son. The other man was one of his many hired hands. If not already clear, the dramatic dilemma becomes even more tenuous. The Marshall wants justice and resolves to pay his old buddy a fateful house call.

Under any other circumstances, these two men would be meeting for a drink to wax nostalgic about old times — the glory days — because it’s true things were different back then. As we have a habit of doing, we memorialize our youth, and the friends and experiences we gird around us as young men commonly follow us our entire lives.

But now they must factor in their current lives. Morgan’s wife is dead. Belden’s last kin is his boy Rick (Earl Holliman). Family is everything to the two of them, and it finds them at odds across most fragile lines.

Soon enough, this western finds its tracks along with the lumbering steam engine barreling through the local town. It’s the age-old format gleaned from High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma. A showdown is inevitable. The train is the method by which locals keep time. It’s is a destination, a symbol, and a way in which to move from here to there. It brings people in and takes them out. Sometimes to leave and find a new life. Sometimes to end someone else’s life.

And yet, as alluded to already, this western is far more personal. This is its strength because Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn, as old chums, are pitted against each other under very unpleasant circumstances. But the story also requires someone who can stand up to Kirk Douglas as far as acting chops and screen presence go.

If not exact equals, they keep the playing field level based on their enduring differences. Neither is looking to budge. One, a marshall with an unassailable will. The other, a cattle baron who owns the entire town. They represent justice in two divergent forms, as individuals enacting the law as they see fit, whether through dictatorship or vigilantism.

The Marshall tries to drum up some allies in town. The stand-in for sheriff is always about taking the long view. That is, whatever will let him keep his craven neck alive. Realizing the whole town’s on Belden’s side, he settles in for the long haul, taking the young upstart prisoner and holding up inside an upstairs hotel room — his captive manacled to the bedpost. The stakes are set firmly in place, milking the tension to the nth degree. We know what must go down if no one budges.

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Earl Holliman’s not necessarily as adept at mind games as Robert Ryan in The Naked Spur or Glenn Ford in 3:10 to Yuma, but he proves he can play the jerk. He’s the detestable combination of an entitled rich kid and a spineless loser.

It’s a misnomer to say there are no sympathetic figures. Morgan makes the acquaintance of one on the train into Gun Hill. She too has a past with Belden. In a town and theatrical landscape literally dominated by men, Linda (Carolyn Jones) has to be strong and a bit of a pragmatist. For these very reasons, she wants to see the Marshall succeed in his foolhardy task.

So, in fact, he has one minor ally for the very reason she’s not completely against him, though she’s not looking to play hero. Nevertheless, she admires a man with manners and the moral compass to hold doggedly to his principles. In a passive way, she’s in his corner, if only because he has the gumption to stand up to her old beau. However, she comes to be more than just a mere observer. Linda gives him his lifeline for bringing his crazy plan to fruition.

With tension mounting, he leads his prisoner out of the hotel with the whole town watching, all the guns trained on him, and the 9 o’clock train arriving just as planned. He marches out with his shotgun square on his prisoner’s quivering jaw. He’ll get it if anyone moves and so we have a contentious stalemate. By some crazy circumstance, he might find a way to achieve justice yet. Because, again, the train is a symbol. It reflects what he might still be able to do if he can only get there.

In the end, it barely matters. It’s a partial spoiler yes, but this was always a story about relationships more than anything. The draw must blow up somehow before reverting to its most crucial point of conflict. It’s all over and yet we’ve reached the inevitable point of no return. A hesitant Marshall is called to draw on his best friend. He doesn’t want this.

But Belden is an equally proud man, and he lives by a certain creed of western masculinity. You must face a man for any personal affront to your being. There is no other way. Even if he has to die in an ensuing shootout, he’s done his paternal duty for his flesh and blood. One must question what the bloodshed accomplishes. In this film, it’s a fitting end of fatalism. Whether it could have been avoided is quite another matter.

3.5/5 Stars

Note: This review was written before the passing of Kirk Douglas on February 5th, 2020.

The Raid (1954): Starring Van Heflin

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On first glance, The Raid feels like a punchier, B-grade version of John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers (1959). In time, it winds up being a fairly apt descriptor. The fact that the other Civil War piece is a lumbering giant gives The Raid an unpretentious edge. Because in the casting department it still has a fine ensemble to work with, despite its humble production values. When Lee Marvin is your fourth bill, the prospects for an absorbing experience are great.

Likewise, the story grabs hold of the real-life events, taking a few artistic liberties, but honing in on an interesting theme. It begins as a mere mission movie — a vehicle for revenge — only to evolve into something more nuanced and ultimately, heartbreaking. This time we see the action from the other side, beginning on September 26th, 1864. These are not rogue Union cavalry looking to wreak havoc but renegade Rebels preparing to break out of their prisoner-of-war camp.

In essence, we have Stalag 17 meeting not only The Horse Soldiers but some amalgamation of The Professionals and The Dirty Dozen, except, again, we are working within budget constraints.

Major Neal Benton (Van Heflin) is the calculating ringleader, who gets his men across the border to Canada in order to plot out the next plan of action. The Raid becomes a story of infiltration, watching and waiting for the best moment to strike. The man sent ahead to do the recon is of course Benton. He dons his best gentlemanly duds to make the necessary arrangement and takes on the name Neal Swayze as part of the masquerade.

News of General Sherman’s march to the sea stokes the flames kindling behind their ire. The purpose becomes twofold. They want to avenge their brothers-in-arms as much as they want to become a thorn in their enemy’s side. Their spot of choice is the Northern oasis of St. Albans. The undercover Rebel makes acquaintance with the local bank owner (Will Wright) and finds agreeable domicile in the home of a war widow.

Anne Bancroft’s role is not altogether demanding as she plays the docile love interest. Regardless, she does this well, even getting a few moments to assert herself. After all, she is the enemy with a human face and we care for her as much as we do for Heflin. This equal footing is key. It causes a schism because alliances have been split. We begin to understand the deep fissures running through the ravaged society.

Even with the mistrusting Captain Lionel Foster (Richard Boone), it’s less about him thinking the other man is traitor and more so, his belief Swayze is elbowing in on his territory. After all, he’s known Katie Bishop far longer. He’s protective of her.

So with time, these relationships grow and Swayze receives a generous amount of acceptance. Soon the Confederate forces slip into town incognito, ready to tear it apart and hit the Yankees where it’ll hurt — in their pocketbooks. An auction of scavenged Rebel goods boils the outsider’s blood. It instigates a contentious bidding war that he finally diffuses. It’s not yet the time for action.

Lee Marvin, forever the loose cannon, all but blows their cover, threatening to set off a disastrous chain reaction. After going on an alcoholic binge, he gets it together just in time to stumble into the local sanctuary of worship. Their hard-sought plans look perilously close to being spoiled. Swayze steps out of the house of God a local legend and feeling even more like a heel.

As such, The Raid is this strange jolting empathy machine. This crisis of conscience comes to bear because the enemy has surprised him and welcomed him into the fold as a fellow human being. Of course, he can barely look them in the eye much less take their generosity, knowing full-well what he has been commissioned to do — completely obliterate their homes.

After all, their soldiers did little better to his home in the South. If we were simply to go by the eye-for-an-eye mentality, and the fact this is wartime, he has more than a right. However, this does not make the endeavor any easier. On top of the logistical elements, Northern troops patrolling through, and the need for stealth and efficiency, all of a sudden he has to deal with complicated relationships.

In the form of the widow Anne Bancroft and her precocious son, the local banker Will Wright, and even the standoffish Richard Boone. He starts to soften to these folks. The most impressive evolution is with Captain Foster. He shows a vulnerability and an ultimately retained dignity as the plot progresses. He would be so easy to villainize because Boone, Marvin, and Claude Akins were so good at those parts. And yet they can all be in this picture and function differently. Boone actually comes out looking extraordinarily sympathetic.

The fact that these characters become more and more like human beings, makes his mission all the more perplexing. This very element gets at the core dissonance of the Civil War because we were literally turning brother-against-brother, sometimes across arbitrary lines of distinction.

What this film suggests is that we have more bringing us together than separating us. Still, we stand doggedly to our presuppositions. Certainly, we cannot downplay the crucial issue of slavery (though it doesn’t play into this tale at all), but I think there are already some intriguing implications.

The line between feelings and duty become perilous roads to traverse. Van Heflin, while never the classically handsome lead, had something far more compelling. There’s an inherent honesty within his stock. He can be genial, pragmatic, even harsh and unfeeling. Whatever he is you never feel like he’s being inauthentic as both hero and villain. This ability carries the picture’s emotional core opposite Bancroft and the stellar troop around them.

Events run their course and yet there is an unquestionable toll to them. A war picture often fails if we don’t feel abhorrence for the violence. But there also needs to be a human connection. The Raid somehow manages both with relative ease. Movies such as this never grow tiresome because they carry with them an invigorating life, in spite of the inherent restrictions hoisted upon them.

3.5/5 Stars