Lonely Are The Brave (1962): The Last Cowboy

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Armed with black and white and rolling plains full of instantly recognizable western exteriors, Lonely Are The Brave goes for an intimate approach. The camera focuses on a man splayed out with his hat tipped over his eyes in slumber. This could have been out of many earlier pictures up until this moment. An instant later the illusion is stripped when a jet cuts across the skyline. It’s an indication of where we are.

Because this is not a blaring lack of continuity. This is a telling signifier. What proves to be out of place is not this jet but the main character at the center of our story. If one of these things is not like the other, then he is indeed the anachronism.

This is the continual struggle of Kirk Douglas’s John W. Burns because even as he fights to maintain his rootless lifestyle reminiscent of the bygone drifting cowhands of old, it’s hardly in vogue with the introduction of social security cards and, for a lack of a better word, civilization. The two diverging stratospheres just don’t gel very well.

The film must sit somewhere atop the list of deceptive film titles. Going in imagining a High Noon-like film about one man standing up in the face of many, instead we get an equally meaningful meditation on the lingering ways of the west in a contemporary context. No thanks to the marketing department, I might add.

However, what does that matter when you employ the considerable wit and wizardry of Dalton Trumbo? He has a ball toying with the most obvious thematic idea of a near-mythical man — an old-time cowboy — whose code of conduct and dwindling philosophy on life butts up against a world that will not have him. He is at odds with it. Averse to fences, boundaries, sectioning off of lands — all now common practice.

He’s indicative of a certain romanticism with his horse and hat out on the range. Even as the pragmatic world around him as passed him by in favor of changing forms of living. This intersection of the remnants of the West with post-war American modernity is made visibly evident when he is forced into playing animal crossing with his horse on a heavily trafficked highway.

When he pays a visit to a woman (Gena Rowlands), there’s something enigmatic about the encounter. A wife, perhaps a lover. At first, we’re not sure. It’s more complicated and less understood. Until it comes out her husband — his best friend — is in prison, and she’s worried about him. Rowlands would have to wait for a true tour de force, but the best compliment I can give is her role has something equally bewitching about it. She’s not quite an entirely conventional housewife.

The subsequent scene takes place in a Mexican-flavored cantina. It proves to be the unlikely arena for an explosive fistfight with a belligerent one-armed man, for what seems to be no reason at all.

If we’re ever told, I’ve no recollection of it and if we weren’t, it doesn’t much matter. It conveniently serves the story twofold. Because we get a rowdy action piece with Douglas duking it out “mano y mano,” while subsequently landing himself a jail sentence so he can drop in on his old buddy as a favor to the incarcerated man’s wife. If this makes little logical sense, then at least it’s different — not where we expect the story to go.

His jail sentence gets dropped and then upped following a police station scuffle carried out while the booking officer dryly lists off the unidentified drifter’s personal belongings like it’s just another day in the office. In the end, Burns keeps his promise to see Paul. There are momentary glimpses this could be a prison movie not unlike Brute Force, Caged, and certainly Cool Hand Luke.

We have a sadistic George Kennedy on the outside of the bars instead of inside. His main adversary is obvious. However, true to character, nothing can keep the cowhand in one place, not even prison.

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The movie is beholden to a cast of giants (current and soon-to-be). Trumbo’s impeccably inventive scripting gives them all the words to emote with wry humor and assorted ticks making them come alive beyond the range of flimsy cinematic outlines.

The plotting itself is of a strange and unorthodox nature, nevertheless buoyed again by the talent and words on the page. Payoffs abound for these very reasons. Otherwise, it would wander as an ill-paced, unfulfilling mess. Thankfully, this is far from the case. The payoffs are strangely affecting, thanks to a story that bides its time, allows for asides, and spends time in untrodden places.

Between Douglas playfully cajoling a recalcitrant new mount and Walter Matthau observing the daily rituals of an unseen mutt outside the office window, Trumbo continually adds these delightfully offbeat touches.

William Schallert — as the good-natured bumpkin officer manning the police radio is in one sense totally aggravating and yet endearing in an innocent way. Even a fresh-faced Bill Bixby is manning the police helicopter the fugitive promptly shoots down from overhead. It’s an unceremonious reversal of fortune with the cowboy’s bullet taking on the whirly gridiron machine down from its illustrious heights.

Still, he cannot hang on forever. Eventually, even his tried and true way will betray him against the rapid assault of constant advancement. It cannot survive just as he cannot. Carrol O’Connor gets only a few solitary lines at the beginning and the end of the picture with rain pounding the highway, but his truck driver has a crucial moment we can all but see coming from a mile away. Though such a realization does not make it any less impactful when it arrives. It was inevitable.

Kirk Douglas, a man known for his intensity (some would say overacting), gives a performance bridled back with his winsome charm. In fact, the entire story plays with this generally lackadaisical, at times, melancholic pacing.

The final act in another picture might be chockful of moments. Lonely are the Brave needs only one. Turner makes one final push to freedom — his escape route, a harrowing ascent into the mountains. As gravity determines, the only way to go is down. It must be the so with John Turner.

So he never quite reaches his apotheosis. He is a partial embodiment of the sentiments of Dylan Thomas’s most famous work — the fight to rage against the dying of the light. Except the light is the way of the West and the battle is lost. It is a foregone conclusion. As time marches on, there is no way to claim victory. One wonders if being the last cowboy is an act of bravery, futility, or folly. Perhaps the answer runs the gamut of all three.

4/5 Stars

Note: This review was written before the passing of Kirk Douglas on 2/5/2020.

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

Saddle The Wind (1958): In Memory of Richard Erdman

Saddle-the-wind_posterJulie London provides her airy voice to the title track and Elmer Bernstein gives his scoring talents for the rest of the picture. In these beginning moments, Saddle the Wind evokes the expanse of the majestic landscapes of the West like the best of its brethren. There is a sense we really are out on the frontier, not some manufactured piece of artifice. For the time being, the film maintains this sense of the wind-open spaces away from Hollywood soundstages.

It gets its first jolt of action when a leering Charles McGraw stomps into a saloon and shoves his weight around for food and a bottle. He’s got his feet kicked back and starts breaking bottles over counters just to get his point across. The locals aren’t looking for any trouble, but he’s certainly looking for someone: gunslinger Steve Sinclair (Robert Taylor).

Here we must introduce the glut of Saddle The Wind. Robert Taylor is still Hollywood handsome but time has set in and made his features more applicable for the West. Where a hard life and past wounds lead people to make a new existence for themselves. The reformed gunfighter is not a new concept, but it is a handy one. It gives a man menace without him having to show it, until it’s absolutely necessary.

The real action arrives in the form of his spunky dynamo of a little brother, who comes back to the family ranch with a woman (London) betrothed to be his wife. His big brother is less than pleased to find Tony has gone and got himself hitched and spent his money on a spiffy new gun.

If anything is cemented in this preliminary scene, it is that one is the hothead, the other maintains reproachful silence. They are the yin and yang of the West. Cassavetes and Richard Erdman, as rowdy Reb veterans, form a rambunctious partnership looking to tear up the town and have themselves a bit of fun. They positively take the bar by storm, only to have their merriment disrupted by the same out-of-towner. Except the man Venables meets up with isn’t an old local or a squeamish bartender.

Tony is on top of the world, and if there’s one thing he’s never gonna do is back off even when the other man isn’t looking for trouble. His quarrel, after all, is with the elder Sinclair. Still, the feisty buck takes it as a personal affront. He goads the man into action. There is no other way for it. Guns are drawn.

Steven rushes on the scene an instant too late. His brother isn’t killed, but something worse happens. He’s filled with renewed fire. The taste of power — the ability to strike a man down with the pull of a trigger — is like an intoxicating liqueur.

Steve Sinclair has long kept the peace with the main landowner in the area Dennis Deneen (Donald Crisp), who is, by all accounts, a businessman and a pacifist. The stage is set for something…

Clay Ellison (Royal Dano) is a proud man clinging unflinchingly to the promise of land out west, formerly bestowed on his dearly departed father when the territory was still wide-open. He’s come on the scene to take back what’s his even as Steve tells him, brusquely, he’s trespassing. In a different context, that might be the end of the incident.

What ignites it irrevocably is a remnant of North vs. South animosity left over from the Civil War (Ellison is a proud Union man with great distinction). The torchbearers are Tony and the impish Dallas as they have a grand old time with the squatters, upending their wagons and chasing away their livestock in fits of gunfire and laughter. It’s a bit of festering payback for wartime grievances, and it’s easily the most devastating scene, right smack dab in the middle of the picture.

It’s a testament of what happens when men take squatter’s justice into their own hands and when the protective big brother does little more than beat back his baby sibling and throw money at a problem. Nothing is remedied.

However, Saddle The Wind ends up being far more contained than I was expecting. It’s fundamentally a character study about two brothers and how they grapple with one another, based on outside stimuli.

We could name a number of people, first the new wife who is brought home. The old vagabond war buddy who is an instant enabler. A gunfighter with a vendetta looking to tromp up old wounds. Even the obdurate homesteader who’s not about to get pushed out by a punk kid.

None of these characters seems to truly exist for themselves. Even lord of the valley, Mr. Dineen, though deeply humanized by Donald Crisp, is just another piece in the brother’s story. This observation might seem too harsh, but with Rod Serling as the story’s scribe, it seems conceivable to say the intriguing idea — because it is that — takes some precedence over the characters.

There are moments to turn the stomach, feelings of conflict, and wrenching segments of tension. This is not a completely lethargic film by any means. If anything, Cassavetes alone sets it ablaze with his youthful fire. Still, some component seems to be missing.

With this vast assemblage of characters, it could be that there are a handful of stories worth telling when the credits roll, and we only got over the cusp of one of them. The ending lacks all the cathartic payoffs we craved so dearly. The strands don’t entirely tie together, though the movie does try and solve everything with a silver lining. Surely it’s not that easy.

Whereas the opening moments felt like a regalia of western imagery, Saddle The Wind settles into almost small-screen paces, going from long shots full of real sagebrush to close-ups with backdrops painted on.

Although it’s hardly fair to consider the film’s merits on this issue alone — I think the suspension of disbelief being broken speaks to something — even as these characters never settle into something truly genuine. It’s allowable to be harsh with critique only because Saddle The Wind has its share of all-too-brief shining moments to go along with its potential. It’s an oater with enthralling elements not fully realized.

3/5 Stars

Note: I watched this film literally two days before the passing of Richard Erdman at the age of 93. He was one of my most beloved supporting actors. He will be deeply missed for his myriad of classic roles and for his work as Leonard on Community.

No Name on The Bullet (1959): America’s Hero Becomes a Villain

Nonameonthebullet.jpg“We might be the only two honest men in town.” – Audie Murphy as John Gant

Audie Murphy had the added reputation of being a hero in real life, and so it hardly hurt him in his efforts to portray valorous protagonists on the big screen. However, despite being a fairly humble effort, No Name on The Bullet deserves some acknowledgment for giving Murphy the chance to be on the other side of the spectrum.

He’s introduced in the picture with foreboding music. It’s the only character cue we need to go with his dark clothes. He’s no good guy. Soon he’s taken a room at the local hotel and his very presence has gotten the whole town buzzing apprehensively.

Initially, it feels like a somewhat corny setup hinging on melodrama. Although Murphy’s by no means over-the-hill, and though I’ve only seen him in a couple films, he was never really a compelling lead.

Early on, his youthfulness aided him as did the mystique of his extraordinary war record. If anything, he is a living testament to courage not being solely predicated on imposing physical prowess. Whereas the westerns of old certainly were, and he does not meet one’s typical impression of a gunslinger. His part as John Gant, though menacing and curt, hardly can be considered intriguing at first glance. He feels like a walking trope.

But as he settles in, everything gets more and more engrossing. In fact, the movie’s increasingly deceptive because his part gets better and better the more involved the townsfolk become.

The implications are that his very name strikes fear in every man because he is a notorious assassin who has killed upwards of 20 or 30 men in the past. However, he’s never met a conviction of any kind because he always goads his targets into fighting back. The question remains: Who is he after? The subsequent punchline seems obvious. Someone is going to be dead by the time he leaves town.

The local Sheriff (Willis Bouchey) is a decent man who nevertheless feels helpless. If Gant doesn’t do anything, there’s no law against sticking around town. All he and his deputy can do is keep an eye on the fort.

It’s this unsettling, restless stalemate of the narrative conceit that proves to be the movie’s bedrock. There is also an innate reminder No Name on The Bullet functions very much as a morality play. In terms of story, Gant is the stimulus in the town causing the dark predilections to come to the surface or, more comically, the scurrying rats who want to confess their shading dealings.

Because his mere presence sends shock waves through the community. The tension comes with not knowing who he is actually after. I even momentarily thought (like The Gunfighter) maybe he’s simply looking for a respite. Not so…

Despite the antagonism, Gant does find one benevolent soul (Charles Drake) who doesn’t hold his reputation or vocation against him, at least not initially. It’s easy since a certain amount of ignorance proves blissful.

Their mutual respect within the picture is informed by the real-life relationship between Murphy and Drake. Murphy considered the other man his best friend and used his pull to get Drake in many of his movies so they could work together. It’s not altogether magical, but there’s no denying it helps their rapport.

Luke Canfield (Drake) is son of the blacksmith while simultaneously filling in as the local doctor. He is pledged to be married to the perky daughter (Joan Evans) of one of his ailing patients. There is little doubt he has a stake in keeping the peace. Even as they come to understand each other, there’s a sense that he and Gant remain diametrically opposed. Still, the gunman suggests they aren’t actually all that different.

They commence a literal chess match that becomes a pretense for the town’s many issues. They trade personal philosophies, with everything that happens around them informing their views of humanity. In the wake of their meeting, the real games begin.

With the sheriff’s powers in question, the invalid judge proposes two alternatives: either vigilante justice — the western standard of mob rule — or let Gant kill his man. Then, everything would be settled.

Though hesitant, Canfield finally resolves to get at the head of the mob to try and ensure no further bloodshed will take place. As town physician, this is his main prerogative. As a trained killer with a job to do, Gant has other ideas, even if he’s not looking to take the other man down with him. They appear to be two immovable forces at a kind of impasse.

The final twist is a lovely bit of, shall we say, poetic justice. The story is served best by an open ending because this is not a distillation of reality; it is a western parable of good vs evil, human corruption, and ultimately, some form of instinctual integrity.

Thinking about it in retrospect, it really is a fine stroke of inspiration to turn America’s greatest WII hero into a villain. It sends a distinct message to your audience: We must look inside ourselves and consider our own character.

Do we stand up to scrutiny? Are the heroes we prop up all that different than our villains or do we often choose to see what we want to? For that matter, are we very far removed from those that we conveniently categorize as villains?

Now 14 years after the end of WWII, you might say America was in a place to start coming to terms with its specters. The 50s were still an age of innocence, but we were on the cusp of something far bleaker. No Name on The Bullet is a portent for a future generation of westerns. Those bearing the mark of a far muddier morality.

3.5/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Joan Fontaine

Although she probably wouldn’t like it one bit, with the recent passing of Olivia de Havilland, it seems necessary to acknowledge her sister and fellow actress Joan Fontaine.

Their sibling rivalry became the stuff of legend when they were vying for the same Oscars throughout the 1940s. What Fontaine portrayed on camera was this kind of alluring timidity, and her early work with Alfred Hitchcock remains one of the lasting creative partnerships of her career.

Her life off screen is more difficult to reconcile with her image, but regardless, here are  a handful of her films worthy of searching out:

Rewind: Rebecca (1940) | The Medium

Rebecca (1940)

Joan Fontaine was a part of a couple epic ensembles with The Women & Gunga Din, but it was the early American classic from Hitchcock the following year that cemented her stature. Opposite the gail force of Laurence and Olivier and Judith Anderson’s ghostly Mrs. Danvers, she gets positively blown over. But part of the brilliance is how Fontaine plays the breathless young bride so effectively haunted by her husband’s past.

Suspicion. 1941. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock | MoMA

Suspicion (1941)

Hitchcock exploits Fontaine’s persona beautifully in this home thriller where her docile wife suspects her dashing husband — played by none other than Cary Grant — is out to murder her! It’s a tense set-up fraught with romance and peril. Both performers carry their assignments with impeccable aplomb although the ending might ruffle some feathers.

Jane Eyre spotlights Orson Welles' perfect romantic antihero

Jane Eyre (1943)

Joan Fontaine once again establishes a role pulled out a literary adaptation, and the parallels to Rebecca are quite strong. Orson Welles give the kind of brooding giant performance easily overpowering Fontaine. But it’s in her very reticence onscreen where she attains power and builds a sympathy with her audience, despite all the trials thrust upon her in Charlotte Bronte’s novel — adapted by none other than Aldous Huxley.

Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)

Within the spiraling pirouettes of Max Ophuls and the tragic loves story of Stefan Zweig Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan take up their posts amicably. Fontaine’s performance runs the gamut of youth to adulthood as she falls in love with a famed pianist from afar and finds herself entwined in one of the most piercing love stories of the era. It’s a heartbreaker.

Worth Watching

You Gotta Stay Happy, The Bigamist, Othello, Island in the Sun, Beyond Reasonable Doubt

 

Man Without A Star (1955): Kirk Douglas Drifting

ManWithoutAStar1955Poster.jpgThere are few better ways to get yourself into the spirit of a western than the majestic gusto of Frankie Laine (self-parodied in hilarious fashion by Blazing Saddles). It’s the segue into a mythical world.

I assumed Kirk Douglas would be the fellow lacking a tin star. And yet the title is a bit more poetic, if not altogether helpful. He’s a staple of westerns just as the plot he finds himself ensconced in is an archetype. Dempsey Rae (Douglas) is the quintessential drifter, constantly on the move. He never had time enough to look up at the constellations and settle on his place among them.

Not surprisingly, all things in the film revolve around Douglas who brings his usual vigor to the role. A fun dose of jocularity tones down his usual intensity, finding time enough to even knock back a few tunes on the banjo. Because, if I’m completely honest, he’s not the first man you think of as a western star. Not the features or the physique.

Still, he’s able to inhabit the role such that he spills out into everything and holds down the film with his very presence. If not an immediately recognizable cowboy, he is a larger-than-life talent.  His part in the story begins in a cattle car where he winds up sharing his open-air compartment with a callow kid from Texas (William Campbell). They witness Jack Elam knife a man, turn him in to the authorities, and get out of further trouble as stowaways.

They stop at the nearest town just passing through with the two men joining forces and becoming instantly chummy. The older man mentoring the young buck — keeping him out of trouble, drubbing him up a job, and teaching him how to shoot. Fancy tricks don’t matter. You’ve got to be quick and sure on the handle. Furthermore, they keep each other constantly amused, a fine example being when the naive wrangler walks into the local saloon in the most hilarious new duds.

In fact, aside from the opening run-in with the authorities, this is a thoroughly amicable storyline, at least until barbed wire comes into the picture. One of the local ranching families aren’t bad folks by any means, but they certainly have a different way of thinking.

There’s a sense it all goes back to the mythos of the open range — nothing to stop you, nothing to drag you down — so you remain free. This is the type of idealized rhetoric Dempsey speaks in. The wire gets in the way of this tradition, finding a hard-and-fast way to section off and also commodify the land.

Strap Davis (Jay C. Flippen) is the foreman, a decent man who brings the boys on as cowhands to work The Triangle, owned by some unnamed investor from back east. Among other luxuries, they look with awe at the new-fangled inventions like indoor plumbing with a toilet inside the house. They’re in for an even greater surprise when their new boss turns out to be a woman named Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain).

Crain is domineering as the cattle magnate and incumbent owner of the Triangle. Without question, it’s one of her most authoritative and thus, one of her most intriguing roles. Behind Douglas, she is the most commanding force as she looks to surround herself with cunning enablers, aspiring to oversaturate the pastures with her stock and gobble up as much wealth as she possibly can.

It’s the age-old conundrum. Douglas is smitten with her assured beauty, even to the proposition of marriage, and yet he can’t carry himself to stay with her as she becomes more and more consumed with her ambitions. The cattle wars end up being fought more by outsiders than those at its center.

Richard Boone and a new crowd are called in to give the cattle matron a more persuasive bargaining power. They rough up Rae something awful, leaving him hog-tied like a pig after one sound beating. Meanwhile, the formerly inseparable Texans are now on opposite sides of a feud. All of a sudden, Jeff’s not the callow laughing stock with a dumb grin on his face. He knows how to kill, losing a level of innocence. It becomes friend against friend.

Claire Trevor is a favorite, and she could play the hooker with a heart of gold part with her eyes closed.  Apart from being the obvious counterpoint to Crain, she is the friend and the romantic interest Rae can fall back on. She will always always have him unconditionally. She actually makes the dead-end role into something, but it’s a shame she’s not given something with more heft or narrative significance.

We have this continued swinging of allegiances. So it’s not a new storyline with its cattle and factions — disagreement over land, and guns looking to muscle their way in by railroading the competition. All of these elements are easily derivative from previous oaters.

But the cast is a joy to watch in action for what they are able to bring to the scenario. It makes for an engaging interplay as characters are turned against each other and stretched to their limits, just enough to make it compelling without breaking with convention too radically.

Expect there to be the preemptive happy ending where reconciliation is discovered and good gives evil a sound drubbing. There’s nothing wrong with that because it’s the drifter’s journey to get there holding our primary interest.

3.5/5 Stars

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

The Fastest Gun Alive (1956) and Glenn Ford Eaten Up Inside

the fastest gun alive 2.png

“There’s always somebody faster.” – Walter Baldwin as a Blind Man

The Fastest Gun Alive chooses to reveal its threat before it offers up anything else. A hulking Broderick Crawford rides into a no-name town flanked by two cronies. He yells into the saloon for some man to come out and proceeds to gun him down in a quick draw. The only reason: Bragging rights. He wants to be known as the fastest gun, and now it seems he’s earned the title.

We now know the inevitable will happen. There’s always somebody else. In this case, it has to be Glenn Ford. Sure enough, the story takes us to another town. It seems like it’s made up of honest people trying to make a go of life on the frontier.

Among their ranks is George Temple (Ford), who runs the local general store with his devoted wife (Jeanne Crain), well along in her pregnancy. Per usual, Ford plays a variation on his grounded hero with a demon planted in his past. It’s not said explicitly — but his actions speak for him — his current life is eating him up inside.

So much so he hides his excursions out to shoot targets from his wife and buries his old firearm in the backroom where it can’t be found. Normally well-groomed for the West, Ford’s hair seems often stringy and plastered down on his face. A new look for him and he doesn’t have a hat to corral it. Because he has presumedly shed all aspects of that kind of life. Still, there’s little doubt it lingers in his past.

For now, there are happy times to be had. The high point is a town-wide shindig complete with some fancy stepping from a young Russ Tamblyn. His shovel stilts dance becomes a highly involved number showing off his physical prowess in what feels like a black & white extension of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. In one solitary scene, The Fastest Gun Alive shows more technical verve than other less exuberant musicals.

However, soon thereafter, the stage brings news of the gunfight, and it has the whole town buzzing with excitement. It’s typical of simple folks. The pontificating old man McGovern keeps the town enraptured with his yarn-spinning about the event of the century, at least as he tells it.

Meanwhile, Temple continues to suffocate under the life in his store — where the games of customer service are driving him insane. Between insufferable customers with their petty requests and grubby children handling the confectionaries, he’s about had it. Except this is only a manifestation of his underlying problem. The news of the gunfight prods old wounds as does his conflicting issues of pride.

He starts falling back on old habits like whiskey drinking. The monkey on his back won’t leave him alone since he cares so deeply about how others perceive him, just as he cannot handle their unintentional derision. It’s what makes him the antithesis of Shane or Atticus Finch, for that matter.

George Temple is insecure. It goes back on the age-old tenets of manhood, being able to prove yourself, to be taken seriously in the ranks of your gender, whether through feats of strength, cunning, or sheer stupidity. However, the consequence is his greatest fear — making himself a whole lot more conspicuous — and sounding the call for anyone who wants to challenge him.

Echoing High Noon, the church becomes the town’s public forum, in this case, involving a man’s resolution to give up his gun and leave the town behind. The bottom line is no one wants him to leave, and he hasn’t committed any infractions. One by one they join in solidarity to keep the secret so no one will ever hear of Temple’s exploits.

It seems a rather strange scenario. But what it does is indicate just how close-knit this community remains. This alone is commendable and yet truthfully, the story stalls here. It opts to bide its time, milking the dramatic irony for all its worth. The inevitable feels like it’s continually being delayed in lieu of a debate.

Even if the townsfolk don’t know what’s coming, he knows that someone riding in to test out his skills is imminent. He doesn’t want to be around to meet them. That is, of course, unless they come to meet him…accidentally. Because it only takes one, in this case, a boy, to spill the beans.

There is no taking it back, and Crawford won’t rest until he’s proved himself the better shot, even with a posse on his trail. It’s these moments where not only Crawford comes into fuller relief but also his partners in crime, a pair of solid characters in Noah Beery Jr. and John Dehner. Two lesser men would have made this interim period far less agreeable.

Even then, it feels like the story’s fizzling out a bit, although it does maintain this one galvanizing strand of tension. It’s almost enough. The one crucial piece of information is finally revealed, and it’s not so much of a revelation as it turns our theme on its head.

Temple’s father was a famed lawman who taught his son everything he knew. He became an even faster man but he’s never drawn on another human being. It’s kept him scared out of his wits. He admits in the same scene, “I’m so afraid, I’m sick to my stomach.” So it’s no longer about pure bravado. True bravery is suggested to be doing something even when you are deathly afraid. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

This is arguably one of Ford’s better performances for the very fact he’s forced to shed his typically cool and robust exterior in favor of something far more tremulous and vulnerable. It relies on the unraveling of his purely masculine image. Otherwise, The Fastest Gun Alive deserves its place rightfully several rungs below the likes of The Gunfighter, High Noon, Shane, or even Day of The Outlaw. That is no criticism, only an honest assessment of a decent western with a unique perspective.

3.5/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Olivia de Havilland

With the recent passing of Olivia de Havilland — one of the last living ties to some of the Golden Age of Hollywood’s hallowed classics — it seemed fitting  to acknowledge her talents in our latest classic movie beginner’s guide.

Her most visible role was that of Melanie in Gone With The Wind (1939) a film that has been the subject of a lot of important conversations of late about representation and censorship.

However, Ms. de Havilland’s career had many other facets. Two that will most likely be remembered are her sibling rivalry with fellow actress Joan Fontaine, and then her famed court case against Warner Bros., which was a landmark decision for actor’s rights. Here are a handful of her most memorable films you should search out showcasing her civility and grace.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Olivia de Havilland’s most illustrious on-screen partnerships was with Errol Flynn as she and the dashing Tasmanian actor starred in 8 films together. Captain Blood was their first foray together and began an auspicious screen romance bursting with chemistry (and conflict). The pinnacle was The Adventures of Robin Hood followed by other beloved classics like Dodge City and They Died With Their Boots On.

Charles Boyer and Olivia de Havilland - HOLD BACK THE DAWN ...

Hold Back The Dawn (1941)

On the prowl for more challenging and gratifying work other than a pretty damsel, Mitchell Leisen’s film scripted by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett was a fine step forward for de Havilland. Her sympathetic schoolteacher opposite Charles Boyer took hold of a story of an immigrant’s purgatory and imbued it with swelling sentiment, heartbreak, and warmth.

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

To Each His Own (1946)

At first, it doesn’t seem like a prestigious part, but Olivia de Havilland proved her talents spectacularly in this quintessential melodrama. She plays a middle-aged woman, who made the ultimate sacrifice for her son, charting her own course from youth in a small-town, war-time romance, and private tragedy. It’s ending is perfectly orchestrated for emotional impact.

The Snake Pit' Review: 1948 Movie | Hollywood Reporter

The Snake Pit (1948)

The Heiress is, rightfully so, a hallmark of de Havilland’s career, exhibiting her immense dramatic talents, but equally emblematic is The Snake Pit. It becomes a harrowing portrait of a woman battling the voices in her head as she navigates a life in a psych ward. Far from being solely melodramatic, she grounds the performance making it as sympathetic as it is terrifying.

Worth Watching

The Charge of The Light Brigade, It’s Love I’m After, Strawberry Blonde, Dark Mirror, In This Our Life, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte