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

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“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

Human Desire (1954): Fritz Lang vs. Jean Renoir

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Edgar Buchanan always annoyed me endlessly on Green Acres reruns, and it’s affected me for a long time. Because only recently have I begun to realize just how broad and robust his body of film work is. He can be categorized with a breed of movie actor that is generally lost in today’s industry.

These were studio workhorses with filmographies so abundant it almost becomes second nature for them to don certain roles. It happens so easily and with such regularity, there’s rarely a need for explanation. It’s all right there in the character and the countless other pictures he’s popped up in before. His part is small but it doesn’t matter.

Because he is the kind of actor only Hollywood of a certain era would have utilized to his full potential. Why does any of this relate to the discussion of this film? My best explanation is the fact Human Desire is not a standalone entry. It comes from a lineage boasting Emile Zola and Jean Renoir’s Le Bete Humaine. And yet Human Desire can be viewed as nothing less than noir cranked out of the salt mines of Hollywood.

The traditions of Michel Carne and Jean Renoir, themselves in the late 30s, coalesced with the early works of Fritz Lang, like M (1931), to form a sturdy foundation to this American iteration of crime cinema. There’s no doubt Lang and Renoir were aware of each other. An obvious point of reference is the fact Lang would adapt La Chienne into a film of his own — Scarlet Street.

Human Desire is his second go at the eminent Frenchman’s filmography, albeit less to his liking. Lang’s railroad imagery isn’t quite on par with the evocative ever smoky grittiness of Renoir’s earlier effort and part of it must be chalked up to interiors which strip away much of the rail tie reality.

In even brief interludes there could be overlap with the work of the Frenchman’s father or other famed realist artists of generations before and there are quite a few lighter, brighter tones, although Le Bete Humaine is still a notable precursor to noir cinematography.

But then it gets dicey because Lang himself came out of the other tradition which all but berthed the dark genre, German Expression, with films like M or American pictures like Fury and You Only Live Once, unmistakable for their equally brooding imagery.

Renoir has an appreciation for the everyman’s daily life as it pertains to this world of grunge and brutality. There manages to be something real, this animal magnetism — a literal madness that somehow feels more authentic.

Lang picks up solely on the total bleakness of a canvas bathed in black. It’s suffocating in that sense. He also functions better within the facades and inherent artificiality of the Hollywood system. Renoir tried it too, and it proved more stifling than productive. Lang, perhaps out of necessity, used the resources more to his advantage.

After the stirring success of The Big Heat, he comes back with his two stars in Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame to do it again. It’s unfairly overshadowed even as Grahame turns in a blistering, merciless performance as a conniving wife. But as with all black widows, the exterior begins demure and innocent enough. It only evolves and becomes more malevolently deadly as time marches on.

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The newfound lens of a returning soldier fits into the context of the era. Because Human Desire is a story revamped for 1950s America, and it translates itself easily enough. Jeff Warren (Ford) is coming home from the army with ideals of a steady job, fishing on weekends, and nights at the movies with a pretty girl. It presents this fresh exterior just waiting to be dragged through the mire.

Because the conventions of American-grade noir, in particular, make for a compelling tale of lust and sleaze. Not that they were entirely absent in Renoir’s picture but they have a different effect.

Human Desire throws together a femme fatale and a formerly clean-cut veteran whose eyes bulge out of his sockets the first time he snatches a glance at the girl. They are not perpetrators of murder by they are implicated in the following courtroom proceedings with Warren complicit in a cover-up. There is a streamlined love triangle between Ford, Grahame, and Broderick Crawford that rarely feels interesting on its own merits.

At its best, it lives out its existence on the screen as a low-grade railway riff on Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice. There are obvious antecedents in its French predecessor but somehow in this context, it seems applicable to canonize it as noir. Emile Zola never felt closer to James M. Cain.

I could only consider the very concrete plot points, not the literary styles themselves. Because Human Desire, of course, is not literary at all — or if it, it is only in the pulpy seediness such entertainment engendered.

Renoir could actually claim some basis in Zola’s literature, not simply by his pedigree but also by evoking the words themselves. Regardless, the two creatures have their distinct appeals for two diverse camps. There’s no question the two helmsmen were a pair of phenomenal craftsman deserving individual repute. The differences in them are as beguiling as the similarities. The same might be said of Human Desire and its forefather. Choose your poison and my guess is you won’t be disappointed either way.

3.5/5 Stars

Scandal Sheet (1952)

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There’s no need to mince words here. With a film christened Scandal Sheet you already have a good idea of what you’re probably going to get before it arrives. That’s fine. Straight to the point can be good.

But the media angle is only a half of it. It’s as much a film of lurid cover-ups and back-alley beatings as it is about dirty journalism. You need those lightning rods for a juicy scoop and it’s precisely these types of events that bring the newspaper hounds out of the woodwork.

If Samuel Fuller couldn’t wind up being the director of his original story, The Dark Page, then there’s arguably no better man to take up the project than Phil Karlson who has comparable sensibilities and an appreciation for gritty crime pictures and pulp fiction though he’s not quite as dynamic.

It’s true at one point Howard Hawks even had the project flagged to star two of his past favorites in Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant. What a film that would have been. But when Karlson came aboard John Payne was offered the role (he would work with Karlson later on) that ultimately went to John Derek.

He and his faithful cameraman (Henry Morgan) are integral pieces of one of the most parasitic relationships on the Bowery that develop between newspapermen and the police. They’re rather like scavengers picking over the carrion or any other delectable scraps that might perchance be tossed their direction.

However, oftentimes the methods of an organization are employed from the top down. In fact, Steve McCleary (Derek) has become the star reporter under the tutelage of Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford) the man who has taken over the helm of the New York Express. He took the once reputed but faltering behemoth and turned it into a sensationalized tabloid that subsequently has the highest readership it’s been able to attain in years. There’s no denying the stuff sells like hotcakes fresh off the griddle. What can you say? Sensation is tasty stuff and scandal is the favorite food of the masses.

The paper’s latest gimmick in pursuit of ever-rising levels of circulation is the implementation of a Lonely Hearts Ball trying to play up the angle of a few nobodies falling in love. It’s a real sob fest with all the trimmings for a great story. No one knew how right that assertion was.

What follows is a conflict of interest that’s ripe with dramatic irony. There’s a murder investigation and the paper is embroiled in the middle of it trying to drudge up the answers with the help of their readership. With such hysteria at its core Scandal Sheet shares, some of the same journalism beats of While the City Sleeps (1956).

However, in this picture, Donna Reed is the moral center because how could we ever suspect her of being anything other than that clean, respectful, Midwestern gal with heaps of integrity? She’s much the same here not wanting to besmirch her editorials with sleaze and believing in old washed up writers when no one else will give them the time of day. Even when her boyfriend is guilty of precisely that. In fact, that’s where a bit of their romantic tension is founded.

Steve’s good at his job and a real bloodhound on the beat and a handsome devil at that but a fairly ignorant stiff, the most aggravating reality about the picture being just that. The case is right under his nose and he doesn’t see it for the entirety of the film.

The easiest way to try and explain it away is much the way Walter Neff did in Double Indemnity (1944) though the roles are reversed, “The guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya.” Except Broderick Crawford is no Edward G. Robinson and there’s not the same genial relationship that can be attributed to the earlier picture. It’s all business.

That’s why his romantic ties are so important. Because that’s the one area where he is steered in the right direction. Once again, Donna Reed is that crucial moral compass in a choppy sea lacking any amount of rectitude otherwise.

But then again, you get the feeling Donna Reed would never turn up in a Sam Fuller picture if this was his. Still, that should not completely neutralize what Karlson was able to do here — developing a film that’s pretty much as advertised. A gritty bowels drama that cases the insides of New York drudging up all sorts of drama in the name of yellow journalism. If that’s what you’re looking for you’re in for a treat.

3.5/5 Stars