Review: Stagecoach (1939)

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While the western hardly began with Stagecoach, one could go out on a very slight limb and say it became a more fully realized version of itself in the hands of John Ford; it all but grew in stature as a genre. This progression cropped out of the prevailing assumption of the day and age that the western was low-grade rubbish meant for no-name actors and meager productions. But Ford proved they could be ripe with so many more possibilities because he had greater ambitions from the outset.

We have John Wayne making a second go of stardom as the Ringo Kid, in what would prove a career bolstering performance, after some 70 films he’d already played in. He, of course, reemerged on the screen in a bold tracking shot and subsequent closeup that has all but impressed itself upon anyone who has ever witnessed the film. In this moment, Ford all but thrusts Wayne into the limelight as his star, for better or for worse, and Duke obliges thereafter.

Ford’s first excursion to Monument Valley proved to be love at first sight as he became so enraptured with the location — and why not — he would film there countless times in the future. It became synonymous with his finest work; he used it as the perfectly mapped canvass on which to express himself. One could argue that no director ever had a better setting,  more synonymous with his vision and sensibilities.

Forget the landscape and situation for a moment. Stagecoach might be one of the premier chamber pieces ever captured. Semantics aside, the picture relies heavily on a cast of characters filled out by archetypes and yet each actor involved is able to lend such credence to each individual role. We readily accept them as a whole ensemble almost seamlessly.

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Apaches stirred up by Geronimo are an excuse for the impending threat looming over the title vehicle. Because it’s true that the stage must make its journey at some point, though the slightly chubby, whiny-voiced driver, Buck (Andy Devine), is hesitant about such a perilous road ahead. Riding shotgun for him is the no-nonsense Marshall Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft) who vetoes the other man’s blubbering.

However, if they were to go it alone with only some payload or mail delivery, Stagecoach would be robbed of some of its richness. Two of the first travelers to join them are both casualties of social prejudice and the snooty, self-righteous prigs of the Law and Order League. Dallas (Claire Trevor) is an ostracized woman of the street and then the scorned Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) is constantly living in a state of drunkenness.

Contrasting with the other woman is a lady of high repute, Ms. Mallory (Louise Platt), who is pregnant and yet resolves to meet her husband at his cavalry outpost. Her presence coaxes a gentleman gambler (John Carradine) to come aboard as he holds some innate sense of duty in protecting someone of her breeding.

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We also have the impeccably named Donald Meek as Mr. Peaccock who is constantly having his name mispronounced while his samples of whiskey are continually finding their way into the Doc’s possession. He’s a calming force just as the entitled banker, Mr. Gatewood, protests just about everything.

If the types sound familiar it’s because you can draw a line between many of them and their progeny for years to come. But the beauty of the character dynamics is the evolution they undergo. We are not simply blessed by starkly different individuals brushing up against each other in close confines. In other words, of crucial importance is how they act toward one another and ultimately how they change over the course of this joint heroes journey.

Claire Trevor, fittingly, later remembered Ford’s chiding of Wayne, “Why are you moving your mouth so much? Don’t you know you don’t act with your mouth in pictures? You act with your eyes.” Watch the film and you understand his direction in actual practice. So much is said in unspoken looks and behaviors. Trevor seems especially adept in speaking with her eyes because everything she wants to say and can’t say comes through this very avenue. And whether John Ford would agree or not, The Duke’s eyes are equally telling.

Interiors are exquisitely framed and lit in such a way allowing the actors to be so expressive while space and staging are used to accentuate those same aspects. Take for example one sequence around a dinner table where two camps find themselves moving to opposite corners. You have the outcasts and the purportedly upstanding citizens opposite one another. Not a word is spoken but it is all played out through mere body language and positioning.

However, Whether the film completely realizes it or not there are other societal casualties, namely the Mexicans shown on the screen as well as the Native Americans themselves. Chris (prolific Mexican-American actor Chris Pin-Martin) at least has a voice but not much else. Meanwhile, it does feel as if the Indians are used essentially for a plotting device. There is no depth present in this regard.

However, the pursuit undertaken by the Apaches is filmed marvelously by Ford. In one particularly memorable long take, the stage lumbers into the distance followed by first four and then an entire wave of riders on horseback. It fluidly suggests immense menace and pace which never quite leaves the sequence.

They are reinforced by a couple shots that feel as if the stagecoach and the horses after it are all but trampling the camera. The sense of volatility is accentuated by the legendary stunt work of Yakima Canutt performing death-defying feats on horseback and hanging from the stagecoach. In the era before readily available CGI, it’s the kind of movie magic still capable of stopping a modern viewer cold.

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But the picture does not end there. The city offers other issues that must be resolved. Namely, Ringo’s final showdown with the men who killed his father and kid brother. Also, he must find out what Dallas really is or at least what she is perceived to be.

However, instead of milking the reveals for pure melodramatics, Ford does one better, creating an atmosphere of pure beauty. But within that same framework is a cringe-inducing tension. Pulling his camera away from moments to dwell on reactions as much as actions and movements as much as dialogue. Some of his actors are even given close-ups all the better for studying every expression of their faces.

Because we can write up all that happens in Stagecoach in a matter of sentences. That’s not the engrossing or remarkable part of the picture at all. It’s precisely the way Ford has cast it as only he could. It’s exciting and moving and genuinely light-hearted but it chooses when a certain mood is called for, succeeding in evoking each at the given time like the most visceral vessels of entertainment manage to do.

Thankfully we had many more outings between Ford and Wayne. The director might have given his friend hell on the set but there’s no debating the fact they crafted some of the most iconic westerns together. The collaboration was imperative. Stagecoach rides on the laurels of many people, not least among them Pappy and Duke.

5/5 Stars

Born to Kill (1947)

born-to-kill-1If you know what you want in life be sure of it and you can’t miss. I found that out early.  ~ Lawrence Tierney as Sam Wilde

Reno was always a Hollywood euphemism. What it stood for, of course, was divorce, a dirty word given the sensibilities of the 40s and the 50s. But then again, being the dirty, licentious, pernicious movement that it was, divorce is a perfect starting point for film-noir. That’s where we first meet Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) as she walks down the front steps of the courthouse.

She’s free of her former husband and about to leave her current residence to be closer to her sister back in San Francisco. She also has a wealthy beau on tap who seems to fit her well-to-do, refined nature. In fact, Claire Trevor is different than perhaps we’ve ever known her before, tempered and proper from the higher echelons of society — hardly a femme fatale — so it seems.

Except that’s not quite the case. Put her in contact with a certain type of man, a man of brute aggression and unfettered jealousy and she’s bound to get into trouble. It happens rather haphazardly as Sam Wilde stiff arms his way into her life. Because, the fact is, that is how he does everything. Their meet-cute happens over a craps table of all places. No words are spoken. They give each other the eyes. He is just off a fit of rage and she is looking to return home. So in the end, they wind up together, drawn to each other.

But she is spoken for, and not to be impeded by anything Sam easily shifts his sights on Helen’s younger foster sister Georgia (Audrey Long) who actually holds the wealth in the family after receiving a great inheritance. That suits Sam just fine as he closes in on this new prize. Georgia in her innocence is taken by this new man. Meanwhile, Helen at the same time abhors this man pursuing her sister and still madly desires him in some twisted way. Their affair is as passionate as ever.

born-to-kill-2However, evil always looks to catch up with the guilty party and a private investigator is poking around in all the places he can to find the culprit behind an egregious crime. Walter Slezak’s Albert Arnett is a witty sleazeball with the lowest scruples imaginable when money is concerned. But he also happens to be decent at his occupation bringing him to San Francisco in pursuit of answers.

Sam is assisted by his faithful accomplice Marty (Elisha Cook Jr.) showcasing his ability with playing crooked pushovers. In the meantime, Helen finds herself losing her fiancee in the drama while being blackmailed by the shady Arnett.

There’s now nothing buffering Helen from the explosive evil in her drawing room. Her sister’s life is torn apart and Helen and Sam must have it out once and for all. They’re too deadly — too volatile for their own good — as everything around them begins to unravel and implode. We expect nothing less in the end.

For being a lesser star, Lawrence Tierney undoubtedly made a killing off his fist-throwing brusque tough guy roles. He’s no turnip, as he puts it, and if there ever was a homme fatale — a deadly male — he most certainly would be the gold standard…

I find more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets and he who falls beneath her spell has need of God’s mercy.” This is a bit of poetic observation from Slezak but there’s also a tremendous resonance to what he says quoting straight from the Bible’s wisdom literature. But perhaps this wisdom also goes both ways since it’s not just the woman who is fallen and corrupted but most certainly her male counterpart. Humans were not Created to Kill but over time they have been Born to Kill and Born to Die too. There’s a difference and that really is the tragic lot of humanity as we know it. Vanity of vanities everything is vanity. 

This is without question Robert Wise’s toughest, deadliest, grittiest picture. He never made a film with more vices or more despicable characters. Imagine, a character who kills for no good reason at all. Just because someone gave him the cold shoulder. It really scrapes the darkest recesses of the barrel. The way of the transgressor is hard. More’s the pity. More’s the pity. It’s cynical too.

3.5/5 Stars

4 “Good Girls” of Film Noir

I do not particularly care for the term “Good Girl,” because it feels rather condescending toward the guardian angels of film-noir. In fact, on closer research, I’m not even sure if it’s a widely accepted term. However, they are the ones in stark juxtaposition to the femme fatales, acting as the beacons of light leading their men away from the path of destruction. As such, their roles should certainly not be discounted and here are four such women from four classic film-noir.

1. Anne Shirley in Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Taking her stage name from the plucky heroine out of E.L Montgomery’s perennial classic, Anne Shirley’s Ann Grayle is the one character of high moral standing in a film clogged with all sorts of undesirables. Even our protagonists Phillip Marlowe (Dick Powell) is cynical as all get out and Grayle’s seductive stepmother (Claire Trevor) cares more about her jewelry than her marriage.

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2.Jeanne Crain in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

Leave Her to Heaven is noteworthy for several reasons. First, it is an obvious example of noir that is atypically shot in color. Furthermore, Gene Tierney gives the most chilling performance of her career as Ellen Harland. However, Tierney’s turn would not be so deathly icy if it were not for Jeanne Crain’s angelic role as her sister Ruth. The polarity of the roles, Ellen’s conniving smile, crossed with her sister’s utter sincerity makes the film work far more evocatively.

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3.Coleen Gray in Kiss of Death (1947)

Of all the “Guardian Angels” the late great Coleen Gray (who passed away last year) was perhaps the sweetest, kindest, most precious example you could ever conjure up. Her role as the faithful Nettie, tugs at our heartstrings. Though she doesn’t have a femme fatale counterpoint, the crazed Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) more than fits the bill.

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4.Marsha Hunt in Raw Deal (1948)

Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal is a film that revolves around a man (Dennis O’Keefe) incarcerated in prison with a girl (Claire Trevor) on the outside ready to help him get out any way she can. But it’s the social worker Ann, who we first gravitate towards because she is the righteous one trying earnestly to reform Joe. It is his evolving character, after all, that is at the core of this one.

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Review: Murder, My Sweet (1944)

e30de-murdermysweet1Ann Grayle: You know, I think you’re nuts. You go barging around without a very clear idea of what you’re doing. Everybody bats you down, smacks you over the head, fills you full of stuff…and you keep right on hitting between tackle and end. I don’t think you even know which side you’re on.

Phillip Marlowe: I don’t know which side anybody’s on. I don’t even know who’s playing today.

Now after seeing the original Dick Powell as a crooner in light song and dance flicks, his re-imagined image as Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe is that much more surprising. This film quickly dropped being the potential musical Farewell my Lovely and ultimately became a hard-boiled Noir called Murder, My Sweet. To Powell’s credit, his new alter ego works and he brings his own spin to the role. Perhaps he has a little more humor than Bogart but there is still enough of the tough guy in his role to make it work. He’s also deliciously cheeky which is perfectly illustrated by a scene where he lights his match on the butt of a statue. It’s great.

Edward Dmytryk gave us a film that has often been credited with helping to define the film-noir style of the 1940s. It makes perfect sense since his film brims with many of the major hallmarks of the genre. The powder-burned Marlowe’s initial narration carried through a flashback lends a wry and cynical commentary to the entire story. The screen itself is cloaked in shadows, filled with billows of cigarette smoke, and is often superimposed with disorienting images.

Early on one man named Marriot is dead, Marlowe gets clocked over the head, roughed up several times, not to mention drugged up. He gets hired, used, thrown off, and seduced more than once. All because of an expensive jade necklace. As Anne (Anne Shirley) notes, Marlowe goes charging into his case not quite knowing what is going on or who he is dealing with. That ambiguity is one of the strengths of this film because we are never allowed the comfort of knowing who to side with.

By default, we begin the film from the point of view of Marlowe, and so he is our anti-hero who we track with the entire film. He gets the giant thug Moose (Mike Mazurki) tossed his way first. Marlowe meets the pretty Anne who hides her true intentions, introducing him to her wealthy father (Miles Mander) and seductive stepmother (Claire Trevor). Next up is quack doctor Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger) who appears to be our most clear cut villain and yet nothing is for sure.

It takes a late night confrontation at a beach house for things to straighten themselves out. Yet even up until that point, we do not know Marlowe’s true intentions, and he does not find out the resolution of the case until well after, thanks to the powder burns to the face.

Aside from Dick Powell’s anchoring performance, Claire Trevor is a tantalizing femme fatale, while Anne Shirley plays the guardian angel rather well. The juxtaposition of a morally questionable woman and an innocent girl develops the tension, not to mention that they are step-daughter and step-mother. When it’s all said and done, Marlowe got a sweet deal. He didn’t even need the jade necklace.

4/5 Stars

Raw Deal (1948)

5453f-rawdeal2Anthony Mann may be most widely known for his westerns often headlined by Jimmy Stewart, but he most definitely honed his craft earlier on. Raw Deal is everything you want and expect from film-noir. Our protagonist is a man who breaks out of the State Penitentiary, you have your potential femme fatale, the moral ambiguity, and most of the other necessary hallmarks.

As a lover of black and white cinematography, Raw Deal is highly appealing with its chiaroscuro, silhouettes, and framing of characters. But after all, that’s often part of the allure of noir.

Claire Trevor’s matter of fact voice-over backed by the theremin is highly effective in dictating the disconcerting mood for the entirety of the film. All our previous predispositions tell us the stage is set for a chilling ending but we can hardly imagine what it is at this point.

After Joe (Dennis O’Keefe) busts out of prison, we get much of what you would expect. A tense manhunt involving a dragnet crossing multiple state lines and a fugitive at large with accomplices. There is violence and melodrama galore as Joe dodges the police while also trying to reconnect with a crooked mob boss named Rick (Raymond Burr), who leveraged an escape attempt so Joe would get knocked off.

With the circumstances as they are, he’s not too keen on giving Joe the 50Gs that he is owed and so Rick wants the fugitive knocked off if the cops don’t get to him first. Put in this light, the film feels analogous to many other noir staples like White Heat, Out of the Past, Gun Crazy or The Big Heat to name a few. However, it has its own wrinkle that makes it interesting.

Joe has his femme fatale to be sure, but the kicker is that there are two dames pulling at his heart strings. Pat (Claire Trevor) is more the dame since she was born in a bad area and has been waiting around for Joe a long time. She’s faithful even to the point of helping him escape, but she’s not the most endearing of characters. Ann (Marsha Hunt) on the other hand is the tender social worker who has been trying to help Joe the legal way. When he breaks out she is taken as a sort of hostage and has difficulties reconciling her feelings for him with what she sees in front of her.

However, he’s certainly not all hardened criminal and so that is part of what makes the rest of the film so interesting. Each character walks the thin line of morality and each one crosses over to the other side even if its only for an instant.

For, Pat the clock continues to tick and her conscience ultimately catches up with her. As the drama reaches its near apex we see Joe’s true feelings, and in a sense, who he has become compared to who he was earlier. However, we cannot help feeling a tinge of remorse in the end. So you see, the film succeeded in doing the near impossible, making me sympathize for Claire Trevor’s character. She seemingly often plays undesirables, but they are never cookie cutter and the same can be said for Raw Deal.

4/5 Stars

“You’re something from under a rock” ~ Ann Martin

Key Largo (1948) – Film-Noir

5b446-key_largo432Starring Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall,  with director John Huston, the film takes place on a sweltering day during the hurricane season. Bogart is passing through Florida to say hello to the relations of a dead war buddy. In the process he and the others at the hotel are held hostage by the mobster Johnny Rocco (Robinson). Bogart seems to back away from conflict but he is only biding his time with the villainous gangster. Through a series of events the war veteran is supposed to pilot the mobsters to Cuba, however he ultimately turns on them and brings justice. This is a fairly good film with Lionel Barrymore, Claire Trevor, and Jay Silverheels in support. It must be mentioned that this was the final film pairing of Bogey and Bacall. Get ready to sweat it out in Key Largo.

4/5 Stars

In honor of Lauren Bacall

Stagecoach (1939)

Directed by John Ford and starring a young John Wayne, this classic western opens with various people boarding a stagecoach for various reasons. The passengers include a drunken doctor, a prostitute, a soft-spoken whiskey salesman, a gambling southern gentleman, an impatient banker, and the wife of a cavalry officer. Driving up top is Buck and the Marshall rides with his eyes open for the wanted Ringo Kid (Wayne) and the threat of Apaches. Despite their differences and the imminent danger, these people are forced to push on toward their destination together. They face unexpected challenges including hostile Apaches, but they finally do reach the town of Lordsburg. After the arrival, Ringo must figure out his relationship with Dallas while also facing the foes that are waiting for him. He does what he has to and ultimately his friends show their true colors. This film is a great character study with very good scenery, stunts, and action. As Wayne’s first big role, it is easy to see how he became a star after this performance. He was supported nicely by the likes of Claire Trevor, Andy Devine, Thomas Mitchell, and John Carradine. Without them and other like them this classic would lose the character depth that makes it work so well.

5/5 Stars

Murder, My Sweet (1944) – Film-Noir

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This film-noir adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel stars Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, and Anne Shirley. It opens with a blinded Philip Marlowe being interrogated and so he agrees to spill everything he knows.

It all started one evening in his office when a big thug named Moose came in to get his help in finding a girl. Marlowe agrees to take the case and he questions a drunken bar owner but all is not right. He returns to his office where a man named Marriot wants his protection during a ransom drop off. However, at the location Marlowe is knocked out and the man is left dead. Through a series of events he meets Helen Grayle and her significantly older husband, who are both involved with a necklace. Also involved is the shady psychic adviser Jules Anthor, not to mention Mr. Grayle’s protective daughter Anne. Marlowe is forced to meet with Anthor and he eventually finds himself locked up in a facility. He gets away and after a meeting with Anne they head down to the Grayle’s beach house. There they have a confrontation with Helen. Now Anther is dead and Marlowe agrees to show Moose his girl Velma. They head down to the beach house and Marlowe puts all the pieces of the case together in front of Helen. Then Ann, Mr. Grayle, and finally Moose all burst onto the scene in a final chaotic finale.  Despite this bleak conclusion, there is also a hint of a happy ending. Much like the Big Sleep this film at times becomes incomprehensible but it just means your brain must work fast to catch up. Dick Powell I felt was a great Marlowe and Anne Shirley was a strong heroine. This is a quintessential film noir to say the least.

4/5 Stars