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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

The Desperate Hours (1955) Bogart Vs. March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

Rancho Notorious (1952): Chug-a-Lug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5 Stars

Night of the Demon (1957) Starring Dana Andrews and Peggy Cummins

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There’s not a more fitting place to start a horror film set in England than with Stonehenge, those relics of old that we can easily imagine being hexed with pagan cults and rituals summoning some unknown evil into the world.

Jacques Tourneur is no stranger to horror films and Night of the Demon (or Curse of the Demon in the U.S.) has its most obvious roots in his work at RKO with Val Lewton and the traditions hearkening back to the days of Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. It’s stellar company to keep indeed. What hasn’t changed is filmmaking that surpasses its budget to create something genuinely unsettling through the generation of eerie atmospherics.

Except, one could contend that this production was much more tumultuous thanks to the ongoing struggles between producer Hal E. Chester on one side and Tourneur and screenwriter Charles Bennett on the other. In their estimation, the man supplying them with funds, was compromising the integrity of their vision and what they saw in the script.

One particular point of disagreement was in the actual incarnation of the devilish spirits, which take on an actual form rather than simply being implied or left fully to the imagination. The creation of a windstorm conjured up on the spot was another instigator as Tourneur demanded the use of airplane engines instead of electric fans. It got so bad lead actor Dana Andrews even threatened to quit if there was further interference with his director’s work.

Even in spite of these forms of strife going on behind the scenes, the picture genuinely comes off as a harrowing tale imbued with the ongoing terrors of witch cults and devil worship.

The beauty is when these seemingly supernatural, spiritual, or otherwise questioned forces impart themselves on the real world. The real world is grounded by a skeptical psychologist named Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) who is not about to believe in any of that kind of rubbish until he has no choice but to.

You couldn’t have a better and plainly a more blatantly obvious form of opening exposition. A man sleeps on a plane. It’s Dana Andrews and the paper propped over his eyes conveniently shows his picture and bears the headline that a prominent psychologist is about to arrive in England. Behind him, keeping him up needlessly, is Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins), a kindergarten teacher. They don’t know it yet but they will be seeing a great deal of each other in the near future.

Certainly people note that Andrew’s career took a tailspin in the 50s due in part to bouts of alcoholism and a changing milieu but if The City Never Sleeps and Night and The Devil are representative of his low budget efforts, then I can’t say I’m too heartbroken. At least his later career gave us a few quality films to relish. At any rate, it still looks like much the same man from Laura (1944) and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). He’s simply seen more of the world.

Likewise, Peggy Cummins is a winsome heroine and a terribly underrated actress who proves a fine companion for the good doctor. They realize they have both arrived in England much for the same reason, to pay their respects to the late Professor Harrington, who died under mysterious circumstances.

Joanna (Cummins) was his niece and intuition tells her something is gravely wrong with her uncle’s untimely death. Though John is forever the skeptic, he’s nevertheless interested in investigating the research his late mentor was doing, which involved runic symbolism as well as the deceased man’s main rival Dr. Julian Karswell (Nial MacGinnis).

Taken at face value, Karswell seems a deceptively bubbly chap who fancies being a magician for the local kiddies. There’s an eccentric and ultimately ominous charisma about him, first claiming he conjured up a wind storm and then when he feels slighted, proclaiming John will be dead in three days’ time.

At first, John takes it lightly but strange occurrences that follow involving a parchment paper seem to suggest he is indeed a marked man with an impending threat on his life. If he’s not totally afraid yet then Joanne is certainly worried for him. She talks him into attending a seance with the medium of Karswell’s peculiar mother, bringing even more strange revelations to the table.

The doctor and his colleagues look to use hypnosis on a local named Hobart, caught in a catatonic state of immobility, to try and pry out answers about this foreboding ordeal right in their midst. The doctor even rushes to an outgoing train because he knows who he will find aboard; his last chance to make it out alive.

Ultimately over strong objections, Hal E. Chester won out and got images of the demon inserted into the film. I would wager it compromises the picture but it cannot completely detract from its unnerving nature, weaving together reality and mysticism into a compelling tale of irrefutable doom. There’s a shroud of powerlessness and dread overtaking the frames even as there’s a general sense our heroes are facing something they cannot quite comprehend. That works very much to its favor.

You do get the sense that Chester only saw this project as a fledgling picture to slide easily on a double horror bill. Tourneur, being the genre wizard that he was, knew he could do far more. Night of the Demon, like the finest horror films in the tradition, remains with us, lingering even after the credits have rolled.

4/5 Stars

Nightfall (1957): Jacques Tourneur’s 50s Noir

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To begin to compare Nightfall with Jacques Tourneur’s Out of The Past (1947), his film noir masterpiece from a decade earlier is a deeply unfair proposition from the outset. One could argue the films feel nothing alike — like apples and oranges — and they came into being in two very different environments. The former is in the world of gumshoes and femme fatales, what we consider now the archetype of noir and it’s true the picture, known as Hang My Gallows High, is a landmark with its photography from Nicholas Murucacas, iconic even on its own merit.

Nightfall is certainly a B-picture but that in itself is a delight. Put it together with a fledgling group of underrated classics like The Burglar (1951), Crime Wave (1954), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), The Lineup (1958), and Murder by Contract (1958) as showcases of how exquisite this genre can be in its very gritty economy. Because we have moved on from the expressionistic facades of the ’40s into a period of more authentically hewn pictures, which were ultimately blessed not simply by the low lighting of studio sets but on-location exteriors.

The script itself by Stirling Silliphant, who consequently would also pen The Lineup, is not altogether extraordinary but it hones in on one man who was caught up in a very unfortunate moment of fate and now has it following him wherever he goes. So we can concede that it shares that same cloud of darkness following Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past.

But for Jim Vanning (Aldo Ray), from when we first meet him on an L.A. street corner, it becomes apparent that other stories are being grafted in with his and it starts long before we meet him. He steps into a bar and on pretense is introduced to the working model Marie (Anne Bancroft) sitting next to him.

We wonder where their conversation will end. A good bet is some sort of romantic tryst or at least a future date, except, instead it’s into the grasp of two thugs who seem like they’ve been waiting for him. Eventually, we learn through a flashback what happened.

He was having a quiet weekend away with his good friend, a doctor (Frank Albertson). The scenery around them is gorgeous, the snow peaks of Teton country poking up behind them in their white-capped winter majesty extending as far as the eye can see. But against that, a truly harrowing development arises.

They see a passing car careen off the road and they go over like any decent citizen to provide aid only they are met by a pair of bank robbers who have a cutthroat mentality seeing as they ran off with $350,000  worth of cash. Almost instantaneously Jim’s reverie is shattered by the worst reality check he’s ever been stabbed with.

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By some miracle, a fortuitous piece of counter fate, he escaped with his life. However, despite a change of location, name, and even occupation — he’s an advertising artist now — like clockwork John (Brian Keith) and Red (Rudy Bond) caught up with him.

He thought Marie was in on it as well and confronts her about it but the romance blooming between them and the fact she’s an oblivious bystander throws them back together. Jim’s resolved to take a bus ride back out to Wyoming to recover the money because his hand is forced. He knows the two robbers will be after it. He doesn’t realize at first they’re not the only ones. A personable insurance investigator (James Gregory) has some vested interests of his own.

Nightfall is generally more fascinating for its locations and elements of style and atmosphere than its actual plotline but sometimes with B noir that’s admissible. The stark contrast is stunning taking us through ’50s era Los Angeles and providing an excellent time capsule juxtaposed intermittently with the snowy scapes of Wyoming.

In a particularly terrific moment, we watch as the noir world seeps into the refined elegance of a ladies’ fashion show where Marion is working the runway. It’s this lovely collision of peoples and settings we are not used to seeing together in the same frame. Meanwhile, the continually dueling voices of Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft prove a simple pleasure in their own right with such rich tonalities of character that distinguish them fully. Perhaps it’s a mere consequence of cigarette smoke.

Not terribly unlike Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951), the picture goes back to the powder of the Wyoming winter and climaxes in a snow plow finale, which is invigorating as much for its backdrop as it is for the action. Some will note the character arcs have been much revised from Out of the Past and we get our hero’s happy ending. Nevertheless, it traverses a brutal road in its own right.

3.5/5 Stars

Great Day in The Morning (1956) and Owen Pentecost

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The backdrop is important to understand where we’re at in America’s history. It’s the 1860s. We’re in the Colorado Territory but it’s the eve of the most egregious war that ever was fought on American soil. Already blood is boiling between diehard Northerners and the Secessionists who want nothing better than to bury each other under a foot of dirt.

We get a taste of it in a man name Zeb who helps save another man’s life from marauding Indians only to turn right around and wish he’d left him for dead upon hearing he’s from North Carolina. However, he’s not the one giving orders. He and a more reserved companion, with a covert mission of his own, are working under hardy Virginia Mayo who is intent on setting up a dress shop out west. She obliges the stranger, the wonderfully named Owen Pentecost (Robert Stack) and he gladly joins their peculiar company.

When they get to town, Pentecost challenges a local saloonkeeper (Raymond Burr) in a high stakes poker game and in the last hand winds up owning the place. As a result, he’s made few friends on either side of the brooding town except for the flirtatious chorus girl Boston (Ruth Roman) who frequents the joint and stacks the deck in his favor.

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He takes up with his brethren below the Mason-Dixon line because he’s heard rumblings that they have a payload of gold and no way to get it back home. Their goal is to use it to bankroll the early stages of the inevitable war. Pentecost is no rebel and no patriot. He’s purely in business for himself and that makes for a thoroughly enjoyable character given the present climate. Because he ends up being an outsider to both contingents.

Instead, he looks to start a revival, preaching a gospel of gold as he’s got a lot of stakes in his ownership, which have yet to be excavated. Though most people around hate his guts, some are in desperate need of money. He lets everyone know he won’t tolerate any double crossing and yet it ends in the inevitable. One man is left for dead and it means very little to Pentecost until the orphaned son comes west, oblivious of the fate of his father or by whose hand. Pentecost takes him under his wing, foregoing to tell the boy about the precise events behind his father’s untimely demise.

He has no sentimental lumps in his throat about going off to war. His only goal is staying alive and he has quite the test ahead with Fort Sumter surrendering and the territory overrun with bloodthirsty Union men as it is. The northern loyalists come to his saloon with one thing on their minds. Making “The Rebels” pay by filling them full of lead. Hanging is too good for them.

But violence only sows more violence and hate still more hate. The collateral damage is far-reaching. The minister (Regis Toomey) watches the world continually shot to hell around him and he puts his hands up and runs into the fray to be some voice of peace even as he too is affected.

A daring escape is finally undertaken with the Union soldiers camped out nearby looking to gun them down decisively if they won’t surrender their goods. It ends up not mattering. The wagons loaded with gold take off in the cover of the night as the loyal Northerners look to chase them down led by the Union officers who have been tasked with the assignment.

It’s at this point that Pentecost finally seems to get a noble streak. In one sense, we see a certain amount of gallantry even on the verge of such a traumatic war but there are also tones that are unquestionably, even morbidly dark. It’s as if to suggest that war might bring out heroism in people but it can also bring out our very worst tendencies too. It’s just our innate nature as human beings.

It seems such a long distance that we have traversed since those opening shots on the brightly lit plains, one newcomer, a lady giving the orders, and two men who will turn out to be deeply invested in this newly forged war. The Civil War changes the entire complexion of the film by its end, even the mores of our main character.

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Cinematographer William E. Snyder boasts chiaroscuro color photography that’s so easy to take for granted because it bathes most of the picture, particularly the later scenes where it seems like more and more drama unfolds during the evening hours.

Part of the reason there’s little to no fanfare around a picture such as this is it’s wholly counterintuitive for B-grade entertainment to be formalistically stylish but that’s what Tourneur always seemed capable of since the days of Cat People (1942). It’s little different here and in one of his final westerns, he continues shooting beautiful sequences with storylines that don’t have any right to be.

There are interludes where Great Day in The Morning has rather peculiar beats and one could say the ending comes early or it’s anticlimactic or it didn’t matter, to begin with. Any one of those conclusions could, in fact, be correct but regardless, some might be taken just as I was with this unassuming oater.

It’s buried movies like this keeping hungry cinephiles always searching for a new delight. It doesn’t have to be a glowing success but if it even momentarily sparkles with shards of inspiration while bringing together a fine cast, we have a winner. Maybe I’m just an ardent Tourneur fan or have a soft spot for Ruth Roman and Virginia Mayo, not to mention the western genre as a whole. Either way, I have few qualms in liking this outing for precisely these isolated reasons.

3.5/5 Stars

Stranger on Horseback (1955) with Judge Joel McCrea

Stranger_on_Horseback_film_poster.jpgI didn’t know my Grandpa too well because he passed away when I was fairly young but I always remembered hearing that he really enjoyed reading Louis L’Amour. It’s not much but a telling statement nonetheless. I’ve read and seen Hondo (1953), which stars John Wayne and Geraldine Fitzgerald, and yet I’d readily proclaim Stranger on Horseback the finest movie adaptation of an L’Amour novel.

Exhibit A is Joel McCrea as a circuit judge, highly principled but firm in his dealings. He’s not simply an idealist either also having the guts to back up his philosophy, packing a gun and walloping thugs when it’s called for. He comes off as an irreproachable, unstoppable enactor of justice — a truly fascinating hero to stand front and center in a western.

Exhibit B has to be one of the most underrated directors of this period in Jacques Tourneur who not only showed an early penchant for low budget black and white horror but in a handful of color westerns, he showcased an equal affinity for visual filmmaking. Shot in Anscolor, Stranger on Horseback is quite the looker, encapsulating the 1950s western landscapes of old. No budget is too minuscule and no runtime too short for Tourneur to make an interesting picture.

The man rides past the unmistakable images of a pine box and a makeshift funeral. The dead man and the reasons for his death are still to be told. However, it becomes apparent very quickly that he was gunned down.

John Carradine leads the welcoming committee as the local attorney and stooge who is very conveniently on the Bannerman payroll and therefore in the family’s pocket. Because in a small place like this hidden away from the long arm of the national government, the Bannerman family and their associates remain king and they have their hand in everything.

The crotchety Josiah Bannerman (John McIntire) is looking to buy out the judge and invite him over to dinner to straighten him out about the killing that took place. He actually meets Judge Thorne and realizes full-well that’s not going to happen with such a principled man. For once there’s someone who isn’t afraid of him, even if he should be.

There’s his niece Amy Lee (Miroslava) who’s handy with a pistol and though she’s on the verge of marrying a feckless local boy, there’s a sense that he cannot give her anything. She is too strong like Bannerman. She needs a man who can match her self-assured toughness.

But it is Tom (Kevin McCarthy) the cocky, smart-aleck son who the judge forcibly takes to the local jailhouse to hold him for the murder of another man. Thorn’s put a target on his back and he knows that the retribution of Bannerman will come swiftly if he cannot be bought out.

He gets the support of the local sheriff (Emile Meyer) who’s eager to shed the apathy that the town breeds and back a man with real guts who will stand by his gun. That’s attractive to him and so if no one else stands up, the Judge has one friend. Meanwhile, he rustles up a few clandestine witnesses to testify against the Bannerman boy because they saw what happened and though initially reluctant they agree to testify since it is the right thing.

With the nearest speck of civilization and with it the nearest courtroom being in the town of Cottonwood 47 miles away, it’s inevitable that Bannerman will send his cronies after the small caravan to stop them in their tracks. It looks to be a daunting proposition at best but again, the Judge never balks.

The finale is all but cut short on an abrupt even awkward note much as we suspected. Our hero has been met and his bluff has been called. But we soon realize since he has been a brazen and thoroughly scrupulous man thus far, he’s not about to change anytime soon. So the final outcomes might surprise just as much as they captivate in a mere matter of minutes.

The question remains, why does the judge go through all this trouble? Is it some vendetta that has him out for vengeance? Is he doing it to prove his stature or receive the admiration of a woman? Is he simply a fellow who’s a stickler for rules and regulations? We never know for sure. Of course, there are obvious markers.

Our best hint comes out of another man’s mouth as he reminds his daughter, “There’s right and there’s wrong and when you see the difference you’ve just got to speak up.” In Judge Thorn, McCrea has brought to life a man who holds to precisely those moral tenets.

He puts his safety in jeopardy, he makes himself unpopular and foregoes major payoffs that could help him live comfortably. All because his view of justice and of right and wrong are so lucid he sees no other way of going about his duties. Let there be more men in our world like the Judge. Not sticklers but men of immense integrity.

Stranger on Horseback is a testament to small-scale westerns that have the guts and the certain level of ingenuity to stand out and weather the ultimate test of time.  Dig it out of obscurity, dust off the mothballs, and you might just find yourself in for a pleasant outing.

3.5/5 Stars

The Flame and The Arrow (1950): Italy’s Acrobatic Robin Hood

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In the region of Italy called Lombardy, Dardo Bartoli (Burt Lancaster) is a bit of an Italian Robin Hood. However, his acclaim as an outlaw is brought on by personal conviction and a blatant disregard for authority. Others are captivated by his lionhearted bravado and fearlessness that, even as a peasant, leads him to brazenly defy the local despot Count Ulrich (Frank Allenby), known as “The Hawk.”

The two rivals have a muddy history embroiled in wonderfully complicated family dynamics as we soon come to understand. No, they are not related, as Dardo has no noble blood, but his former wife (Lynn Baggett) has willfully taken up as one of “The Hawk’s” courtiers. For that, the proud man has never forgiven her and entreats his young son to remember his mother so he can know the truth about what she did. The boy is played by the terribly precocious Gordon Gebert who many might remember from his memorable turn opposite Janet Leigh in Holiday Affair (1949). He’s much more astute than his age might lead us to believe.

In an act of skill and overt cheekiness, Dardo shoots down one of the king’s prized hunting birds and must flee across the rooftops, scaling walls and scrambling away to live another day. But his son is not so lucky and he gives himself up to the guards so his wounded father can get away. He will be taken to be with his mother and trained up in the way of a nobleman. Learning how to carry himself and dance like a little gentleman. But that doesn’t mean he has to like it. He is the heart and soul over which the entire film will be fought over.

Though he received a great deal of help from quality stunt performers like industry veteran Don Turner, there’s no doubt Lancaster’s own training as an acrobat was put to good use in this swashbuckler, which even saw him partnered with one of his old company Nick Cravat.

There’s an instant camaraderie between Dardo and the mute Piccolo. It’s palpable because the two performers have, in fact, spent many years together on the road doing acrobatic feats together so the trust is by no means a fabrication. They put the real-world rapport to good use through every trial they must face together. They know amid all the treachery on hand, their friendship will hold fast.

Among other bits of mischief, they create a man-made avalanche to come raining down on “The Hawk’s” guards in a mountain pass to frighten them away. Then, the merry brigands are joined by Allesandro (Robert Douglas) who was recently scorned by the Count. He is accompanied by his bard, a very well-versed fellow with a wry wit (Norman Lloyd).

Soon Dardo is on his way to disrupting the king’s courts to collect his son and comes swinging down right into their dinner, fending off the soldier’s lances with a flaming torch. Whether or not it would be practically effective is up for debate but it sure looks cool.

Although they are thwarted in their initial objective, in the hubbub, they manage to steal the princess, the Count’s glamorous niece (Virginia Mayo), away from the castle as leverage. She’s taken back to their lair, situated on some ruins in the wilderness, far from the prying eyes of the Count, to wait it out in captivity. The next move is to bait an irresistible trap for the outlaws by taking Dardo’s feeble uncle to be hung on the gallows within the city gates. The showdown is set. And yet when that is handily dealt with a whole row of new hangings come in its place.

The Count is beyond playing nice. He wants to see Dardo squirm and he’s going to do everything in his power to end him once and for all. In fact, it looks like he’s outmatched his pesky arch-rival. Yet with the help of the townsfolk, the outlaw pulls off one of the great death-defying stunts of all time.

At its best, The Flame and The Arrow really becomes a game — a medieval fencing match with deliberate lunges to go on the offensive then feints and parries, ripostes and other countermeasures all culminating in one final victor. But it comes down to the wire.

The king’s guardsmen prove no match for hordes of villagers and carnival showman led by Dardo, in one last daring siege, rescuing prisoners and overrunning the premises in a most uproarious fashion. But the beauty of how the allegiances have been set up means in order to get to the king, who is looking to run off with Dardo’s boy to live another day, he must go through Allesandro who is compelled to hold him off.

All in all, The Flame and The Arrow lives up to its name with lively acrobatic combat sequences and an impressively agile Burt Lancaster. I must admit I had never seen him in this light as a kind of cavalier action hero cast out in the mold of Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn. I know now he was more than capable of the rigorous challenges.

Virginia Mayo is as feisty as she is radiant, caught between her royal blood and a man who excites her more than anyone she has ever met. Meanwhile, Jacques Tourneur demonstrates once again that he is one of the finest directors of genre pictures Classic Hollywood ever had moving so freely between horror, westerns, adventure, etc. He can do it all.

4/5 Stars

The Court Jester (1955): The Brew That Is True

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Maybe I’m simply partial to Medieval forms of entertainment but it’s hard to imagine a finer vehicle for Danny Kaye than The Court Jester. It needs to be lithe enough to accommodate his goofy even acrobatic brand of song-and-dance buffoonery. What better arena for Kaye than the king’s courts, that laughable domain of a man in a dunce cap and tights?

However, equally important is some form of plot for the actor to hang his routine on. The production is complemented exquisitely by a lavish setting replete with fine costuming, bejeweled individuals, and everything from knights and sword fights to magic incantations, backroom treachery, and romantic entanglements.

The humorous tongue-in-cheek opening diddy “Life Could Not Better Be” sets the tone nicely. We are inserted into a storyline that is a decidedly genial Robin Hood knockoff. In his place is our righteous outlaw The Black Fox who is looking to install the rightful king to the throne, the infant with the royal birthmark — the purple pimpernel.

The malevolent, power-hungry King Roderick has usurped the domain and set himself up as the supreme leader of the land, surrounding himself with an array of equally loutish characters, namely Lord Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone). The King is hopeful an alliance with a knight named Griswold will help him to vanquish his mortal foe, the Fox, promising to betroth his reluctant daughter (Angela Lansbury) as a sign of goodwill.

Ravenhurst, fearful that his place of prominence might be undercut, calls on the services of a Court Jester named Giacomo (John Carradine) to do away with the king’s other consorts. However, on the surface, it seems the perfect disguise for the minstrel Hubert Hawkins (Kaye) to aid the Black Fox in his raid on the castle.

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If Kaye is for all intent in purposes our Allan a Dale thrust into our Robin Hoodish role, then Glynnis John is his fair companion Maid Jean (aka Maid Marian) who also happens to be a trusted captain of the Foxes men (aka his capable Little John).

After they overtake the real Giacomo, the carnival showman dons the robes of a jester for the masquerade. He thinks there is only one agenda. To meet a contact within the castle on behalf of The Black Fox. Little does he know, he’s also got to look after the well-being of a precious baby in a basket while unwittingly making a connection with Ravenhurst who assumes him to be an assassin (“Get it?” “Got it.” “Good!”).

Meanwhile, the princess receives an oracle from her personal maid — a witch named Griselda (Mildred Natwick) — that a gallant man will soon arrive at the castle to have her hand. Little does the new Giacomo know he’s now caught up in a third complication as Griselda casts a spell on him turning him into a strapping and virtuous lover with the snap of her fingers — another one of the film’s recurring gags.

After his new entertainment arrives from Italy, the king also sends out an edict that all the fair wenches of the land be brought into his courts and, of course, the lovely countenance of Maid Jean gains the favor of the king, earning her a prestigious place in his company.

As he does his best not to bungle (by purposefully bungling) his floor show to earn the approbation of his master, Kaye must try and resolve the three plans of action put forward, though he’s conveniently forgotten them all.

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Soon our hero is ousted as an imposter and a cunning plan is enacted to red light him for knighthood so he will be eligible to face off against Griswold at the following day’s tournament for the hand of the princess. It’s all but inevitable. He’s a dead man without a chance at survival unless the Black Fox can come in time to take his place! Alas, it is not to be.

Their last-ditch effort is to try and poison Kaye’s formidable foe before they enter into combat. What it sets up is the film’s most beloved gag and one of the most heavily quoted routines there ever was: The Vessel with the Pestle and The Chalice from the Palace. In typical Kaye fashion, he struggles to remember which one holds the brew that is true or as he says it “the true that is brew.” Add the Flagon with the Dragon to the verbal shell game and he’s done for.

The extended hijinks is pure tongue-twisting, mind-boggling perfection, given an added exclamation point by his suit of armor becoming conveniently magnetized. This causes him to continually clunk into his adversary as they present themselves before the king. It couldn’t be funnier. And as a good belly laugh is often hard to come by these days, I was greatly delighted. The scene plays just as well as the first time I’d seen it.

But the antics in part give way to some genuine thrills as the jester leads a daring uprising against their would-be captors capped off by a counter-offensive by their friends. A merry band of little people sneaks in only to terrorize the courts and form a conveyor belt to fling their adversary away from the castle premises with a catapult. What follows is a storming of the castle by the rest of the rebels and a finale of the best comical homage to Technicolor Robin Hood there ever was.

A final duel with Ravenhurst showcases Kaye’s bipolar “dual” personalities. First, the frantic slap fighting of a craven coward, then the cocksure swordsmanship of a man with endless confidence, though it takes some support from his true love to send Ravehurst to his fitting demise.

There, in a nutshell, you have the impeccable concoction of the film reflected in Kaye. He’s a buffoon as much as he is a hero who nevertheless comes out on top thanks to another’s love. With a fairy tale ending such as this, life could not better be. Of course, The Court Jester is spruced up by the very fact it supplies a wagon-load of laughs to supplement a thoroughly agreeable adventure.

4.5/5 Stars

He Ran All The Way (1951): John Garfield’s Final Film

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We meet the belligerent two-bit criminal named Nick Robey (John Garfield) sleeping one off in the grungy apartment he shares with his acerbic mother (Gladys George). It’s not exactly the lap of luxury but it gives us some immediate insight into who he is. He’s an oafish, pitiful excuse for a human being and he’ll never amount to anything. One very visible reason comes from his open disdain for other people; he and his mother share no amount of affection whatsoever. It’s not a very promising portent.

Norman Lloyd, once again, plays some sidewalk sleaze, like he did in Scene of The Crime (1949), this time coaxing his pal Nick into helping him pull a job. It looks as easy as pie. And it is. The man parks, starts walking away with his briefcase full of dough, and they overtake him easily — without a hitch of any kind. But it’s inevitable; in order for there to be any movie at all, something must go wrong. A nosy policeman starts poking around and they scramble to get away before he nabs them.

The cop fatally wounds Lloyd but Garfield gets away, not before gunning down his pursuer. Just like that he winds up a cop killer. Except no one knows his identity definitively. So he’s got to go on the lamb keeping himself masked with the weekend crowds.

It’s a fascinating documentation of weekend diversions, in particular, community swimming pools. With his payload of money in toe, Nick nervously tiptoes around the pool eyeing the oblivious policemen milling about. There he also meets a girl. She’s not only a cover but a bit of a welcomed distraction from his continual paranoia.

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He Ran All The Way takes on a motif reused in Suddenly (1954) and other such pictures as Nick essentially becomes a live-in guest to Peg Dobbs (Shelley Winters), her parents (Wallace Ford and Selena Royle), and her kid brother (Bobby Hyatt). He lets them go about life partially unimpeded, keeping one of the family at home at all times as constant leverage. That way there’s no funny business.

While the picture is hardly Garfield’s best, it is imbued with tightly coiled tension that’s instigated in the opening minutes. The ticking clocks never end aided by confined spaces, oddly intimate relationships between captors and hostages, as well as a volatile showing by Garfield. He’s all turned upside down trying to deliberate on his future plans.

Then they have a clash of principles over the dining room table. The family with their stew and him with the turkey and the lavish meal he’s gotten together. They want no part of it but he’s going to get them to eat even if he has to provoke them at gunpoint. In another scene, he inquires gruffly, “What does that church stuff do for you?” Without skipping a beat, still working away on his model vessel, Mr. Dobbs succinctly replies, “it makes you understand the virtue of love.”

Thus, this dialogue aptly frames the story as a tale pitting family versus romance in such a way that only one can come out intact. Peg is the one forced to make a choice. James Wong Howe’s camera works in numerous close-ups and that continues even until the end of the film to underscore moments of isolated impact. Garfield’s face, in particular, is singled out. We see the fear, the anger, and the confusion breaking out across his features time and time again.

A stairwell finale perfectly epitomizes the dynamic between the two leads, see-sawing back and forth perilously. Until they make it to the ground level and things must come to their harrowing conclusion once and for all.

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For all the hell Garfield put his captors through, the look on his face is striking, when it all comes to an end. It’s betrayal and fright and forlornness all rolled into one. Even as he’s a hard-bitten, tormented man, there’s still a sliver of something inside of him that we cannot help feeling sorry for. That’s a testament to the earnestness of his talent.

The context of the picture becomes arguably just as important as the film’s condensed narrative. Like any movie, it was hardly conceived in a vacuum and the early 1950s were, of course, characterized by the paranoid finger-pointing culture of McCarthyism.

The emblematic figurehead that always gets brought up is The Hollywood Ten — who subsequently were some of John Garfield’s closest collaborators. Dalton Trumbo even worked under a pseudonym on this script while director John Berry, for all intent and purposes, might have been christened the 11th member of this targeted group. Following the production, he would enter a self-exile in Europe.

But this would also be John Garfield’s last film and it would primarily be his last film — most people agree — because his heart attack, brought on at the age of 39, was caused by undue stress from the allegations he was embroiled in.

Even though he went before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, his appearance did not completely absolve him and on top of that, a separation with his wife looked to be ending in divorce. He would die on May 21st, 1952, his funeral attended by masses of mourning friends and fans.

He was the apparent forerunner to such other tragic figures like James Dean and Montgomery Clift and the not-so-tragic decline of Marlon Brando. Without Garfield, those fellows would have come out of nowhere but from him, you trace the line of progression from hardboiled stars like Cagney and Bogart. Watch these films and you recognize that same pent-up alienation and angst. Most importantly there’s a newfound sense of vulnerability being awakened.

3.5/5 Stars