I Walk Alone (1948) with Lancaster and Douglas

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“All the songs sound alike these days.”

The title of this movie inadvertently made me think of the Dinah Shore number “I’ll Walk Alone.” Granted, the title is slightly different, and it was birthed out of the WWII context where soldiers left their sweethearts behind to wait it out.

I Walk Alone could have easily made a play for this type of story. Instead, it replaces traumatic military experience with a long stint in prison and so our protagonist comes back to the outside world with a slightly different mentality. So there’s really no connection out all, and yet somehow music holds a crucial place in this movie because it comes to represent something about the characters. We hear, among other standards “Isn’t It Romantic?” and “Heart and Soul.”

Each of these classics plays as odd counter music to an otherwise rough and tumble story that might yield descriptions ripe with gangsters and noir imagery. When Dave meets Frankie at the train station, we understand the score instantly: 14 years behind bars and now he’s on the outside. Lancaster and Corey are holdovers from the previous year’s Desert Fury (along with Lizabeth Scott).

Ill-will has built up over the same period because back in the days of prohibition, Dave (Lancaster) used to be in cahoots as a rum runner with Noll “Dink” Turner (Kirk Douglas), who has now made a name for himself on the outside. After taking the rap, Dave feels slighted by his old partner, and true to form, his partner is trying to feel him out so he might know how to counteract him. It’s an instant conflict.

Coincidentally, it’s the first crossing of the dynamic wills belonging to Lancaster and Douglas who would continue a storied cinematic partnership over seven pictures. Even at this early date, they have fire in their bellies to drive their dramatic inclinations.

Having the two of them together is a singular delight in a way Desert Fury from the previous year could never deliver. Because in a sense they are on equal footing in terms of cinematic clout and charisma. Not that they’re the same person by any means, but it’s rather like Mitchum and Douglas sparring in Out of The Past. It makes for a far more absorbing picture.

Before he won the privilege to be an irascible hero, Douglas excels at being the cool and calculating criminal type. His voice is almost high-pitched and strung tight giving him an unnerving quality with pointed fury behind his eyes — as dark as ever. Still, he gladly maintains the pretense of friendship; it’s good for business.

When Frankie makes his way to the Regent club, he sees all the old crowd is still around, Dan the hulking doorman, then Ben behind the bar. It’s a bit like old times, but times have changed.

The veiled threats in their first meeting are an extraordinary barrage from the opening warning “Don’t move,” to the insinuations about his health on the outside, and the final flash of flame from a cigarette lighter. Intensions are made very clear.

True to form, Dink uses every resource at his advantage to defuse and exploit his old friend if possible. He’s the consummate businessman even when it comes to women. Lisabeth Scott, the club’s resident torch singer, is a whole-hearted sentimentalist who believes in love and in people — the fact they just don’t make songs like they used to. In this regard, she shares a conviction with Frankie. But she’s supposed to be Dink’s girl; at least she works for him.

However, there’s also Alexis Richardson (Kristine Miller) a refined beauty with a name “spelled in capital letters” and a cigarette pinched between her feminine fingers. She’s also filthy rich and she doesn’t mind her men philandering; for her romance is as much a business transaction as it is for Dink.

The script has its moments of lively snappiness especially leaving the lips of Lancaster who exerts himself as the brusque, no-nonsense tough operator. He’s not about to let other’s knock him off balance or get too far into his confidences.

However, I Walk Alone charts the changes that went into organized crime while Frankie was in the slammer. Whereas he represents the brawn of the old days, Dink is an emblem of the wily business practices necessary to get ahead currently. He’s able to cast off his old partner’s stake in the company with a convenient signature on a piece of paper.

What has developed is an age where big business steamrolled the olden days of hoods and backstreet gangsters calling the shots. Where three corporations can only be understood and operated through board meetings, diagrams, and dizzying bureaucracy. This web feels like a conspiracy to Frankie while only reiterating the helplessness found in a story like The Grapes of Wrath where modernity has overwhelmed the old ways.

He piles into his old buddy’s office with a posse of thugs including the smart-mouthed Skinner (Mickey Knox), the heavy Tiger (Freddie Steele), and the ubiquitous Dewey Robinson. What he realizes only too late is it’s not a matter of bringing knives to a gunfight. They are mostly outdated tokens just like him. As the brassy one quips he’s “swimming in it.”

What happens next is not unforeseen. There’s a manhunt and the man finds himself a woman who brims with his same spirit; someone who stands by the standards and sentiments of the past. To coin a paradox, they can walk alone together.

Beginning to end, what truly holds I Walk Alone together is the slimy impudence of Kirk Douglas struggling for dominance over Lancaster’s inherent tenacity. Without them, and then everyone else, including Scott, ably orbiting around them, it feels like the story might fall apart. Still, film noir aficionados should have more than enough to gorge themselves on.

3.5/5 Stars

Desert Fury (1947): Small Town Melodrama in Technicolor

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The draw to Desert Fury must begin with its intriguing cast running the range of personalities. John Hodiak and Wendell Corey (in his film debut) are driving into town. There’s this sense that their relationship is familiar but they feel like out-of-towners, somehow bringing a ting of noirish sentiment into what might otherwise be a straight-laced picture from director Lewis Allen.

The town was doubled by Piru in Ventura County and the colors of Charles Lang are grand if a tad on the campy side. All the better to serve the visual melody of the film. Burt Lancaster is Tom Hanson, the sheriff in the small town where he happens upon Lizabeth Scott on Main Street, a rambunctious creature of trouble nosing around for romance in her wood-paneled Chrysler New Yorker Town and Country. He warns Paula Haller to watch herself, which she easily laughs off before driving home.

Part of her disposition must be genetic because while they couldn’t seem different, her mother is a very independent-thinking, straight-talker who lays it out like she sees it. Fritzi feels like the toughest dame Mary Astor has ever played — the cocksure proprietor of the local gambling joint — used to throwing around money and being on top of everything, and well-liked by everyone if she can help it.

That being said, she’s hardly the maternal type — in fact, she hardly feels like a mother at all — even as she’s vehemently against Paula following in her footsteps. Because hers is a tough life doing her best to shield the impressionable girl from the same trajectory. Surely, that must be it…

The Purple Sage proves its own self-contained world for the characters to lose themselves in. Our primary players are thrown together again and it never ceases until the final exhale.

Because out of everything Desert Fury can possibly offer, the relational dynamics are one reason to latch onto the film and stick around just to feel out what’s going on and where it possibly could be heading with each character exerting their own pressures on the story.

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Lizabeth Scott could be simpering but with her smoky voice and youthful looks, she always managed to be an enigma. Not always the most engaging performer but somehow she fits the curious makeup of a picture like this. As her mother observes with an inflection of eros, she’s “nice and fresh and alive.”

John Hodiak is generally curt, with an abrupt delivery and whether it’s his performance or his own nature seeping into the part, there’s no nuance or finesse to what he puts out. But as Eddie, he’s allowed the benefit of a past — a past that makes Fritzie wary of any advances on her daughter. It attributes menace to him regardless of what he is capable of offering.

Johnny is his lifelong companion since their youth, protective of him, even jealous for his affections playing as an inversion of Fritzie — as both housekeeper and bodyguard to his longtime associate. But the secrets run deeper still.

What A.I. Bezzerides and Robert Rossen’s script evolves into is this kind of tug-of-war with Paula acting as both the object of desire and the token with which to play out these feuds and affections. She gladly honks and smiles her way into all sorts of conflicts, driving her town car with a cavalier daring from the very beginning. Her sheer impetuousness propels the story.

She’s drawn to Hodiak, and he’s enchanted by her, showing her the door in another instance only to instantly revert back again to his charmed infatuation. It’s a tumultuous if moderately intriguing bedrock for romance.

Because Lancaster is invested in her too, warning against association with such a character. Whether it’s on account of her personal safety or his own guarded affections feels immaterial. Even as Fritzie offers a pact — land for the hand of her daughter — the proud lawman balks at the offer because he wants romance on his own terms.

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Fritzie knows where he stands but even she doesn’t get it. One evening Lancaster walks into her office searching and yet keeping his cards close to his chest. It’s as if he’s letting her try and figure it out.

Meanwhile, Paula and Johnny have their own strange war playing out over Eddie colored with its share of passionate kisses, flying fists, and slaps of disdain. The incendiary couple ignites most of it.

However, what’s even more important is what is alluded to not simply off-screen but from each individual’s past personal dosier and shared history. They know one another out of the confines of this hour and a half. The ensuing array of heightened dramatics and supposed revelations are nothing unusual or unforeseen on their own.

It’s the observable action speaking in the final stretch (along with the theatrical Miklós Rózsa accompaniment) with cars barreling down the desert highway in hot pursuit of one another.

It’s a Hollywood denouement — hardly a reinvention of themes from love triangles to shadowy pasts — but the melange of performances and the slight subversions teased out speak to something. Where the final kiss is not between Lizabeth Scott and her alpha male but with her mother.

While not a moral tale,  it’s a movie voicing the tangled, clouded, dysfunctional relationships plaguing a small town — and the world at large. The guise of  Technicolor melodrama is a fitting pretense.

3/5 Stars

Seven Days in May (1964): A Twilight Zone America Strikes Close to Home

Sevendays_moviepThe opening images of Seven Days in May could have easily been pulled out of the headlines. A silent protest continues outside the White House gates with hosts of signs decrying the incumbent president or at the very least the state of his America.  We don’t quite know his egregious act although it’s made evident soon enough.

The scene at hand rapidly escalates to violence. There’s an immersive cinema-verite quality to the mob that breaks out between rival protesters. It instigates the film’s overt sense of technical style even if it’s not always straight to the point.

What becomes imperative to John Frankenheimer’s movie is how this showmanship frames the performances at its core because the movie is driven by its robust melange of characters. Fredric March is president Jordan Lyman. He’s getting middling reviews for headlining a nuclear disarmament deal with the Soviets. This includes backlash from his highest-ranking military officials, and they’re not going to sit around while he lets America get annihilated.

It might seem like a slightly peculiar (if not entirely unfounded) reaction, seeing as in real life so many people would soon call for peace. Except in this world, the Cold War is literally reversed; now they have peace, and the outcome still remains the same. Everyone’s suspicious of what might really be going on behind the Iron Curtain.  If it’s not evident already, Seven Days in May effectively becomes an off-shoot of your typical Cold War doomsday drama.

Somehow it seems fitting Rod Serling adapted the script from the titular novel because this is a story planted in an inconspicuous and generally subtle near-future. It is its own Twilight Zone in that the logic feels slightly tweaked from what contemporary America was familiar with. At any rate, it’s concerned with an entirely different outcome than President Kennedy was currently faced with. What makes it truly startling is how much of a hop, skip, and a jump it feels from reality.

While it’s unfeasible to totally encapsulate public discourse during the early 1960s of the Kennedy administration, it’s often true movies act as an echo chamber of the times, reverberating the current issues in fundamentally different ways. I cannot speak to the anxieties Seven Days in May explicitly illustrates. But there are tinges of very real conditions, be it public protests and national marches (with the civil rights movement) and certainly the ongoing frozen-over politics of The Cold War.

Foremost among the detractors is General Scott (Burt Lancaster), who adamantly believes nuclear disarmament is a dubious peace — a sign of America’s weakness as they roll over and cave to Soviet interests — leaving the nation vulnerable. And it’s not an isolated opinion with close associates including Colonel “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas) sharing his line of thinking.

However, even their own private allegiances dictate drastically different courses of action. There would not be a movie if “Jiggs” did not uncover General Scott’s covert operations. Namely, a garrison of men training at an undisclosed facility in El Paso. It’s the first of several red flags.

The Colonel immediately brings a line of communication straight to the top triggering mistrust and paranoia as the inner circle of the president is overtaken with consternation. Although he seems admittedly quick to sound the alarm, it is indicative of the times. Especially because their fears of a military plot to take over the government seem overwhelmingly well-founded. Such a coup d’etat on the oval office almost feels unthinkable in the modern age of America; maybe this fits a more Twilight Zone sense of our government structures.

Regardless, Lyman heeds the warning and sends one of his closest allies, old southern boy, Ray Clark (Edmond O’Brien), to check out El Paso. Another oval office insider (Martin Basalm) ends up tracking down the one standout from the conspiracy — an admiral currently based out of Spain — who gives a signed statement of foreknowledge. Meanwhile, The Colonel is asked to continue in the uncomfortable position of an informer. The President must bide his time until he can back up the claims, lest he be seen as a raving madman by the general public.

While Lancaster might have the more high-profile post, it is Douglas who feels like the sinews holding the movie together, and rightfully so, because he was one of the major forces behind the film’s production. To his credit, it shows his ability to play a more restrained part — close to the vest — which still remains deeply impactful.

His scenes with Ava Gardner feel like a minor side note to this covert conspiracy of international importance, and yet it’s a tribute to both of them; it feels real and devastating in its own right. Their shared context means something.

Given the era, it’s hard not to consider the likes of Advise & Consent and then the more nuclear-oriented dramas like Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove. And of course, John Frankenheimer had a well-documented pedigree with the political thriller from one of the most high-profile contenders, The Manchurian Candidate, and the criminally overlooked Seconds a few years down the road.

If we were to take his loose trilogy and compare it with Alan J. Pakula’s trifecta of thrillers from the 1970s, we can somewhat trace the evolution of the genre from one decade to the next.

As Lyman notes, the electorate is looking to elect a personal God for the duration, whether a McCarthy or a General Walker. They clamor for such a person to assuage their fears. The enemy is not other men but the nuclear age. We suspect infiltration and that the enemy is trying to blow us off this rock. Not until later would our own government be implicated, and then big business and our own systems be seen as a source of the problems.

Some of the best scenes take place in the privacy of the oval office because we sense the tension provided by the stakes. However, the whole drama is brought down to a manageable scale that can be quantified and understood through human relationships.

The intimate confrontation between March and Lancaster is probably a pinnacle of the storytelling, far more impactful in fact, than watching a full-scale conflict play out. Instead, it’s the whole movie hinging on one showdown between two incomparable forces, and what a showcase it is.

What makes the film smoke with legitimacy is how both men suggest, in their heart of hearts, that they are right and justified in what they are doing. And that’s what the great actors can do. Lancaster, in particular, is easy enough to cast as the power-hungry, possibly sleazy villain with a Napoleonic complex. But Lancaster’s ferocity is only matched by his steely delivery. There’s never a suggestion he is phoning in those lines of dialogue. They come off real and true and unflinching.

In the eleventh hour, there’s a sigh of relief and an equally perturbing sense of unease. We conveniently never find out if the peace treaties were a ploy by the Soviets. All we’ve done is live to fight another day. Tomorrow could signal oblivion. For this early in the decade, it feels surprisingly downbeat signifying the times certainly were a-changin’. The shift was inexorable.

4/5 Stars

*I wrote this review well before events at the Capitol on January 6th, 2021. 

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Ava Gardner

We wanted to continue our ongoing series by highlighting a few of the best films of an actress we’ll be writing about in the next weeks. Ava Gardner was renowned throughout her career as one of the most alluring leading ladies in Hollywood.

And although she was linked romantically with everyone from Mickey Rooney to Frank Sinatra, and wound up plastered all over the tabloids, we want to acknowledge some of her most noteworthy films. Because she left an indelible mark on cinema. Let’s have a look at her career, shall we?

The Killers (1946)

This is the movie that put Ava Gardner on the map and rightfully so. She still remains one of the most deadly film noir sirens thanks to her turn opposite the tragic Swede played by Burt Lancaster. She casts a spell on him (and her audience), thereafter catching him deeper and deeper in her tantalizing web of destruction.

Pandora and The Flying Dutchman (1951)

With a flip of the coin, you could just as easily choose The Barefoot Contessa. However, thanks to the bewitching Technicolor of Jack Cardiff and this kind of fated love story collapsing time between Gardner and James Mason, it’s hard not to recommend Pandora. Part of the reason comes with how it plays with the mythology around Gardner’s own reputation. Regardless of the plot, it’s transfixing for totally capturing her supernal beauty.

Mogambo (1953)

It’s easy to think of this as the prototypical Gardner role. She’s gorgeous as per usual, but she also has spunk, running off her mouth and ably sparring with anyone who comes her way, be it man or beast (ie. Clark Gable). She flaunts herself all over the screen, cracks jokes, and leaves yet another lasting impression in John Ford’s picture.

The Night of The Iguana (1964)

She held her own in On The Beach and Seven Days in May with the likes of Gregory Peck and Burt Lancaster, but it’s her part opposite Richard Burton here that shows how her persona evolved over time. She’s seen the world and gives the repressive film a vitality and richness that would be lacking otherwise.

Other Films: Bhowani Junction, Shadow of The Thin Man, Singapore, Show Boat, My Forbidden Past, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Band Wagon

Do you have your own favorite Gardner films that you would recommend to a first-time viewer?

Elmer Gantry (1960): Sinner & Saint

“You not only put the fear of God into them, you scared the hell out of them.” – Arthur Kennedy as Jim Lefferts talking about Elmer Gantry.

Elmer Gantry opens with a disclaimer, which no doubt plays as a defense tactic against the National Legion of Decency. However, taking a page out of some of the gangster pictures of decades gone by, while the filmmakers don’t condone the behavior, they find it within themselves to represent it. The caveat reads like this:

We believe Revivalism can bear some examination — that the conduct of some revivalists makes of a mockery of traditional beliefs and practices of organized Christianity…Freedom of religion is not a license to abuse the faith of the people…due to the highly controversial nature of this film, we strongly urge you to prevent impressionable children from seeing it. 

Elmer Gantry is really the brainchild of writer-director Richard Brooks although it was adapted from the eponymous short story from years earlier by Sinclair Lewis. If you allow me to use the term, the picture boasts an embarrassment of riches, with actor-producer Burt Lancaster headlining, revered cinematographer John Alton, and the music of the much-esteemed Andre Previn. In most regards, they do not disappoint.

For his part, Lancaster delivers his most ingratiating, charismatic street preacher act. He seems to understand the inner anatomy of the character even as he seems to embody bits and pieces of Gantry himself. If you recall Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, Lancaster does his own rendition or for that matter, he shares some small resemblance to Lonesome Rhodes from A Face in the Crowd.

By day, he makes ends meet as a traveling salesman — a tramp in a silk shirt — with a penchant for booze, women, and tall tales. As he sees it, his real calling is as a “Man of God,” though his definition seems pretty thin. Still, in the grassroots world he lives in, if you’re compelling, carry big ideas, and have a sprinkling of the Good Lord’s holy scriptures hidden away in your heart, it goes a long way.

Is it just me or do Lancaster’s eyes have a certain lecherous glint to them? It seems to rise up in him unsolicited, whether singing a gospel spiritual, looking around a big revival meeting, or quoting passages of scripture with extra panache. It’s true; he knows the hymnal by heart and the scriptures like the back of his hand, or at least just enough to use them effectively.

He gives us a little taste of his magnetism on one fine Christmas night, interceding on behalf of some Salvation Army charity workers as they call on the good graces of his fellow bar mates. However, after taking on a cattle car full of hobos, he ends up lugging his suitcases to the nearest town alongside the railroad track. Regardless of what he tells his mother over the telephone, he’s barefoot and, by all accounts, destitute.

In the very same moment, we catch a glimpse of some prominent signage, “Sister Sharon Falconer — can save you!” If Gantry is our wheeling-dealing main attraction, Sharon is his foil. Jean Simmons plays the role as a truly empathetic champion of the cause, who nevertheless runs her crusade like a business.

Patti Page is one of her devotees with the voice of an angel, while Dean Jagger, her right-hand man maintaining the facts and figures, ensures they stay on schedule. They also have their personal entourage of journalists, including Arthur Kennedy, who make quite sure they get the necessary press support. Everyone agrees she’s quite the lady, and it’s a well-oiled operation as they travel across rural America.

But Elmer takes them to another level. When he joins the team, his impassioned messages make the good people swell with emotion; his sights are on an urban revival. He wants to take religion to the cities. After all, that’s where the money is.

Soon they are courting the community leaders in the city of Zenith and all they have to offer. The name is apropos because it really is the pinnacle of what they are trying to accomplish. If they can succeed here, there’s no question where they might go.

The local leaders and ministers bandy about what they might do about the competition from entertainment industries, diminishing church attendance, and pervasive financial problems. They’re all real-world issues no doubt plaguing the church today and in most any generation. It’s a Mr. Babbit who opines that they need to get the young people back in church and keep the train on the tracks.

Arthur Kennedy might be the voice I appreciate the most. Because Elmer Gantry is born out of a deeply religious context. People have the rhetoric and a certain cultural liturgy down, but if I am aware of anything about Jesus Christ, so many of the people who call themselves Christians, don’t know him. They use his name, evoke his words, and then choose to live by their own standards.

Jim is one of the few characters in the movie who lives as a searcher. He’s still trying to find the answers to life’s questions. In a single moment, he turns the public against the sister and Gantry with his honest, albeit incisive news reporting. However, when he could embroil them in greater scandal, he elects not to. That’s not his game. When he lambasted for his lack of Christian faith, he says his doubt is not blasphemy. On the contrary, it makes him the most honest character in the picture.

Shirley Jones doesn’t show up until well into a picture and yet soon enough Lulu Banes becomes what feels like the lynchpin character to the whole drama unfurling before us. She lives a life of ill-repute in a brothel, but she wears her profession as a badge. More importantly, she has a history with Elmer Gantry. In their earlier days, Gantry was kicked out of seminary and she was disowned by her ministerial father, for their indiscretions. She knows Gantry more intimately than most, and she can use it against him.

It’s a foregone conclusion that this religious empire must come tumbling down. The images when an ensuing scandal breaks out are some of the film’s most definitive. From the podium he once enraptured audiences, Gantry is pelted by fruit, eggs, and hot jazz under the big top. He’s ridiculed as a total hypocritical disgrace — and in a fit of irony, it’s the single moment where he feels the most Christ-like. No, he’s not sinless and not a saint; he is very human in that regard, but in this moment of immense humiliation, he’s forced to bear the brunt of all the shame.

This is only superseded in the final moments in what feels like a hellish conflagration as the tabernacle bursts into flames. it’s such an evocative image as holiness and hell meet in a fiery inferno with Sister Sharon and Elmer Gantry right in the middle of it. From dust, you came, and to dust, you will return.

Considering the historical moment and Burt Lancaster’s own religious leanings, there’s a sense he intended the movie to be his response to such stadium preachers as Billy Graham.

Lancaster relishes the opportunity of being a louse and also very easily undermining religious thought and rhetoric — telling half-truths and appealing to religious fervor — while conveniently looking after his own ambitions. He slinks his way into other people’s life like a worm (or a serpent) laughing and cajoling and spouting his own brand of religion. His tongue flatters all, and he’s good at it, but he’s always looking to gain something from others. Mind you, he’s not the only one. We all have that tendency.

I am by no means an authority on Graham, but despite any unpopular opinions he had, he was also a very faithful man of God and he had such a profound impact on generations of people, literally, millions of people all over the world. Thus, the parallels to Graham never were of a great deal of interest to me and feel mostly immaterial.

It’s easy to draw out the movie as an indictment of Gantry and to a certain extent maybe it is, but it says something more endemic to our society and our systems. Those people still exist today. Sometimes it’s fire and brimstone and sometimes it’s inverted into a prosperity gospel.

However, then scandals come out, lives unravel, churches schism, and hearts are hardened. We put these religious figures on a pedestal and almost without fail they let us down in some manner. Some have misguided beliefs in themselves like Falconer. Maybe they burn with the human lust and passions of Gantry.

Is it scandalous to say, I rather like him? He seems like a genuine fellow.  Like Sister Falconer, he seems to generally believe what he’s preaching; this I didn’t expect. But he’s hardly a saint. The fallacy comes with building him up to be one.

None is righteous, no, not one; and no one understands. Lefferts is getting there. We must seek after the truth. We would do well to not just cave to feelings and emotions. Still, intellect will only get us so far. We must have ears to hear. Because true wisdom, true discernment is proved right by what we do. It’s up to each of us to figure out what that is.

4/5 Stars

Vera Cruz (1954): Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Montgomery Clift

In our ongoing series, we continue shining a light on classic actors we think more people should get to know. This week our focus is none other than Montgomery Clift!

Monty Clift was one of the unsung champions of a new brand of acting that bridged the gap between the New York stage and the soundstages of Hollywood. Before Marlon Brando, James Dean, and others, Montgomery Clift introduced moviegoing audiences to a new form of intense masculinity paired with a striking vulnerability.

His life was marred by tragedy but instead of dwelling on that let’s celebrate the extraordinary career he forged for himself with some of the great directors of his generation. Here are 4 of his greatest movies with performances to match. 

Red River (1948)

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What’s immediately apparent about Monty Clift is how particular he was about his roles. Because his film debut was nothing short of an instant classic. In this iconic sagebrusher from Howard Hawks, Clift went toe-to-toe with a vengeful John Wayne, playing an adopted son and his father who vie for control of the family herd with startling outcomes. 

The Search (1948)

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Once more Clift aligned himself with an esteemed director — this time Fred Zinnemann — and invested himself in a story with real-world urgency. He plays an American soldier who takes in a young boy orphaned by the war. They strike up a relationship while racing against the clock to reunite him with his kin. The chemistry between the two is beautiful to watch.

A Place in The Sun (1951)

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This is the film that will forever define Clift’s career slotting him opposite a dazzling Elizabeth Taylor in one of her first adult roles. The adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, directed by George Stevens, captures the emotional weight Clift was able to channel into many of his greatest roles. It’s one of the most devastating romances of American film thanks in part to Clift and Taylor.

From Here to Eternity (1953)

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Although I’m led to believe the film is slightly overrated, there’s nothing wrong with Monty who brings his continual range as a troubled soldier on the eve of Pearl Harbor. Though it’s easy for him to get overshadowed by kisses in the waves between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr or the gutsy performance of Frank Sinatra, there’s no question Clift is front and center playing opposite Donna Reed.

Worth Watching

The Heiress, I Confess, The Young Lions, Wild River, Judgement at Nuremberg, The Misfits, Freud: The Secret Passion.

The Swimmer (1968): A Fable Starring Burt Lancaster

The_Swimmer_poster.jpgI am tempted to call The Swimmer a pretentious fable about the waters of life. It is set in the upper echelon of Connecticut society, but the same cross-section might hold true in California as well. In fact, one could say this film effectively extends the pool metaphor of The Graduate (1967).

Because it is indicative of not simply prosperity, but “The American Dream” as well, synonymous with plastics and water filters that filter out 99.99 of all solid matter. Whereas Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) floats along in the water lazily, not quite sure what he is doing after graduation, Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) has a completely different experience, though he does live in the same WASP bubble.

For him, he forms some quixotic fantasy to swim his way back up the hill to his home, making his way by taking a dip in everyone’s pool on the road there. It dawns on him that “Pool by pool they form a river all the way to our house” and so he takes a swim down memory lane.

Each new home he comes upon puts him in contact with old friends, neighbors, children, acquaintances who never want to see his guts again, and various social gatherings. We don’t necessarily have enough time to make any judgments on those around him — they might easily come out of Mike Nichol’s film as well — but we do see an awful lot of “Neddy.”

What is extraordinary and simultaneously maddening about The Swimmer is how it blends dream-like, sun-soaked imagery verging on the surreal with these real-world scenarios. We can easily imagine a real-life counterpart to each of these people existing in the flesh and yet the film is never concerned about drawing them out.

It’s playing with the landscape and reveling in its own metaphor. We have refracting light cutting through the trees, deep piercing irises staring off into the distance unblinkingly.  Vaulting bodies and galloping legs provide the continuous motion to propel our picture ever onward even as it languishes in these self-indulgent asides.

Because there are many encounters between all of Merrill’s swimming strokes, the best recourse is to highlight only a few. Julie Ann Hooper (Janet Langard) is the pert young babysitter who agrees to join Mr. Merrill on his endeavor. Between quotations from the lurid Song of Solomon and admissions of girlish crushes, they have a fine time.

But every moment of gaiety is just as easily forfeited when all the pretense of fun and games are lost in the face of ugly reality. Ned tries to play their relationship off as something innocent, but it verges on the uncomfortable time and time again. There comes a point of no return.

Another telling moment comes when he happens upon Shirley (Janice Rule who replaced Barbara Loden), a woman reclining poolside with a magazine in hand. It comes out that they had a messy history together. He was the philandering husband and she the “other woman.”

Her defense mechanisms are those of bitterness and acerbic retorts. Within this context, she feels merciless, and yet one must admit she has a reason for harboring a grudge. Again, it speaks to Ned — this “suburban stud” who has insulated himself with agreeable fantasies. He doesn’t realize how he has harmed others.

His final leg — arguably the most telling — is at a public pool where his decadent delusions are rudely shattered for good. These folks do not have the pretense of all his affluent friends and so they view his life with a certain amount of aversion. They see right through his facades, and they aren’t buying the schlock he’s peddling. It turns out his life is a decaying, crumbling mess on all fronts.

Cocktail parties and rivers of champagne only serve to exasperate the problems at hand as the men and the families they hold up begin to fracture under the weight. Underneath the surface of the water, fissures have riddled his very foundation. He cannot hide them any longer. It’s only in the final minutes we realize how very dire the situation is.

Burt Lancaster, from a physical standpoint, seems like a marvel, defying his age as he streaks through the woods like a youthful buck and churning through the pools with methodical ease.

He’s still capable of making the ladies swoon too but there’s the ever-present undercurrent there. There’s this quality to him — capable of being the cad and somehow tragic in the same sense — that’s ever arresting. Just look into his eyes and you know it to be true. It’s quite a stirring performance and as the most important piece to this drama, he more than accommodates the audience.

3.5/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Kirk Douglas

With this ongoing series, our goal is to help people who are new to classic movies, get a foothold. To make it easy, we give you 4 representative choices and then some supplementary options.

Sadly, with the passing of Kirk Douglas earlier this week at 103 years of age, it seemed apropos to tackle his career for those who might be interested. There are so many great movies to choose from, spanning the decades, but we’ll give it our best shot.

Champion (1949)

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Kirk Douglas had so many stellar early supporting roles in noir: Strange Love Martha Ivers, Out of The Past, I Walk Alone are all memorable. However, Champion was Kirk Douglas’s big break channeling his trademark intensity into the ring as an overzealous fighter. It would set the tone and help shape his growing reputation in Hollywood.

The Bad and The Beautiful (1952)

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Despite all the glitz and glam to go with a Hollywood storyline, Kirk Douglas is as blistering as ever. Like Sunset Boulevard or In a Lonely Place, it shows another side of the industry and Douglas and Lana Turner deliver some of the most memorable performances of their careers in this Vincente Minnelli drama. That’s saying something if you consider Kirk’s work in Detective Story and Ace in The Hole around the same time.

Paths of Glory (1957)

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Paths of Glory stands as one of the great wars films for the very reason it runs counter to many of the narratives we know well. At the core of this Stanley Kubrick WWI piece is Douglas as a man caught in the middle of the insanity of war, in this case, perpetrated by his own superiors. If you want more conventional entertainment there’s also Gunfight at The O.K. Corral (1957) highlighting Douglas’s longtime screen partnership with Burt Lancaster.

Spartacus (1960)

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Spartacus is arguably the tentpole of Kirk Douglas’s entire career, and it has the epic spectacle of sword and sandal epics of the era with Douglas anchoring the action with his typical dimpled charisma opposite Jean Simmons. Behind the scenes, the picture would prove to be a watershed for unofficially ending the Hollywood Blacklist by openly crediting ostracized writer Dalton Trumbo. It’s one of Douglas’s great moral triumphs as a Hollywood producer.

Worth Watching

A Letter to Three Wives, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Man Without a Star, Lust for Life, Last Train from Gun Hill, Lonely are The Brave, Seven Days in May, etc.

Run Silent, Run Deep (1958): A Streamlined Submarine Drama

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Run Silent, Run Deep features what amounts to a cold open, set in the Bungo Straits, near the coast of Japan in 1942. The foreboding sonar-infused score by Franz Waxman suggests this will be a no-nonsense war drama and sure enough, within the first 5 minutes, a submarine commanded by one P.J. Richardson (Clark Gable) has been sunk in its mission to destroy an enemy ship, leading to the capsizing of the entire crew.

As Richardson looks back at his receding enemy, we see the film’s objective right before us. He is bent on revenge. Given the situation, this is not a film so much about survival but returning to finish a job no matter the circumstances, dangers, or counter-orders standing in the way.

After a short leave of action, Richardson talks his way into another command, this time taking over from Jim Bledsoe (Burt Lancaster) who has already formed a close-knit rapport with his men. They don’t look too kindly on a new man taking over and Bledsoe broaches the subject bluntly with his new superior.

Richardson is hardly going to be dissuaded by a minor thorn in his side and his new crew begrudgingly take to the grueling regiment of drills he has them on. No one is looking to make any friends. This is hardly a film about buddy, buddy or camaraderie. There isn’t time. The one thing the commander does instill in them is discipline and well-oiled efficiency. It’s probably the greatest gift he can give them based on the circumstances.

The stakes are obvious as the death trap, Area 7, has led to the loss of four separate Allied subs, including Richardson’s previous command. What the story devolves into is a fairly straightforward WWII drama which is nevertheless riddled with tension as they knowingly enter perilous waters.

It’s true a submarine serves as an impeccable locale because its very form functions in constraining the action and ratcheting up emotions. There is no release valve and all these crewmen are literally submerged underwater for hours at a time. If that isn’t nerve-wracking I’m not sure what else qualifies.

Combine this environment with men who are already in tight quarters only to become more contentious over a major distaste in their commanding officer. It’s easy to envision him as a modern-day Captain Ahab. His white whale is the infamous Japanese Akikaze, Bungo Charlie, that he’s already has a deadly history with. The seafaring setting and power dynamics also hint at the traditions of The Mutiny on The Bounty though the story foregoes this exact demarcation.

While there are few flourishes or subsequent surprises from director Robert Wise’s film, there’s no question in labeling Run Silent, Run Deep an immersive experience, even for such a streamlined endeavor. In fact, that more than anything plays to its advantage. This allows it to be compact actioner extremely aware of its outcomes and not content until its mission has been accomplished. While it does not leave a great deal of leeway in the area of character development, our cast is a varied and compelling ensemble.

Obviously, the central figureheads are Gable and Lancaster, two hard-bitten battlers who are also consequently, far too old to be playing their parts. But this is Hollywood, after all, so it’s easy enough to make allowances when you’re getting top tier talent.

However,  surround them with the likes of Jack Warden, Brad Dexter, Don Rickles (in his film debut), and Lancaster’s long-time collaborator Nick Cravat, and you have something quite engaging.

The key to the success of both the mission and the film is that it ends as quickly as it begins. It gets in and gets out with striking precision, taking little time to rest too long on its laurels. Between the flurry of malfunctioning torpedoes, the barrage of enemy depth charges, and bombs raining from up above, there is plenty of flack to provide antagonistic interference. By the end, it seems a miracle our men get through at all but of course, it’s not without a toll, both physically and mentally.

Because even when you cannot see the enemy in the flesh, the capability to do harm hardly slackens. In some cases, it proves even worse. What is easier to exterminate, an enemy who lacks any type of form or personage or one that is living and breathing? In this regard, Wise’s picture is sterile and impersonal. It’s not so much a flaw as it is a sobering reality.

3.5/5 Stars