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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

The Prowler (1951)

the-prowler-1The whole thing turned on a freak accident. You’ve got to believe that Susan.

The Prowler doesn’t waste a moment of time with its opening credits as we are privy to a woman shrieking from within her bathroom. Why is fairly obvious. There’s a voyeuristic prowler on the loose and the police must be called on the scene. The men on call are Webb Garwood (Van Heflin) the discontent young gun and Bud Crocker (John Maxwell) the genial veteran. They search the premises, meet the flustered gal (Evelyn Keyes) and leave her be with no signs of a prowler remaining.

In fact, from that moment onward the prowler is only a phantom, a figment of the imagination, a convenient scapegoat. But blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo also cleverly uses this “person” to move his story forward seamlessly. The stage has been set. Our young cop has his interest piqued. Here is a beautiful, seemingly lonely woman and he can be her knight in shining armor. He’s taken by her and drops in on her with the pretense of monitoring her safety. In such a way, the narrative progresses into a love affair and an adulterous one at that. Because Susan Gilvray is married to the man who is always on the other end of the radio (ironically voiced by Trumbo himself sneaking his way into the film). He talks to her from far off and rather like the eponymous prowler, he too seems an almost otherworldly phantom haunting both Webb and his girl in their deceit.

It becomes obvious soon enough that Webb is the most crooked cop on record as he sets up a scenario that is tragic and he casts himself as a victim of circumstance. But it’s all orchestrated in such a way that Susan is free of her marriage and Webb receives the sympathies of the general public in the ensuing court proceedings. Soon after the drama has subsided, the pair of clandestine lovebirds turn around and get hitched. The next stop on their journey together is out to the desert as the action gets transplanted. Webb is keen on running a hotel and seeing a bit of the desolate country his former partner was always touting.

It’s in this back half where director Joseph Losey is able to develop his second major locale the ghost town of Calico which becomes the stark backdrop for the final act. It’s in such a setting where the couple looks to flee their misdeeds but they’re already so far gone, caught up in a lie that they cannot hope to mitigate. And that’s the tragedy. Webb cannot help to give up the lie even even with the love that he has found. Worst of all, it never was love at all.

Van Heflin was mostly an earthy, rough-hewn sort of actor but in the Prowler he’s surprisingly slimy and it’s a joy to watch him in that kind of role. Meanwhile, Evelyn Keyes is quite pretty and evocative but there’s almost a weary gauntness to her that’s hard to pinpoint. It hints a little bit at the hollowness and fleeting aspect of this romance that initially enraptures her but leaves her disillusioned. Also, the fact that Webb is surrounded by chummy average Joes like Bud and the dead man’s brother (Emerson Treacy), it just becomes more obvious how corrupted he is. Because it’s these real square, true blue individuals who willingly vouch for his character when he has none. They trust him completely when there’s nothing but deceit within him.

Dalton Trumbo is certainly ripping a few pages out of the likes of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, but he does a master class job to the glory of the B pictures. And he really only seems to falter once. Although it’s a major plot point, a turning point, it somehow hurts the film that we see Susan’s husband in the flesh. It’s only for an instance, but in that instance, he loses that phantom quality. He’s real and far from being haunting, the fact that we know him, makes this story sad really. In the end, we realize The Prowler in the expected sense, never existed. It was all an apparition, a figment of the imagination, simply utility for one man’s avarice.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Gun Crazy (1950)

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Bart has an intense obsession with guns. It’s what his life revolves around. It’s the only thing he wants to do as a boy and the only things he seems to think about. It becomes a problem when he breaks a store window, but during the following hearing, his sister and friends vouch for his character. He would never take a human life or kill. That’s not in his nature.

No matter, it is decided Bart should be sent off to a special preparatory school, and he only returns years later as a grown man recently off a stint in the army.  He’s back in his hometown not quite sure what his future plans will be, but his buddies are glad to see him. They shoot some, drink a few beers, and decide to take a jaunt to the carnival for a night of fun.

Their Bart meets the girls of his dreams. There’s a quality to John Dall that makes Bart into a pure victim of his circumstances. He’s quickly infatuated with the gun slinging and sensuous Peggy, who seems to share his one love. A goofy smile is plastered on his face as he faces off against her in an act of skill. He makes her uneasy and ultimately beats her. 

He gets a job with the carnival and spends as much time as he can with her when he’s not shooting guns. They are fed up with their boss and leave the migrant life behind. Marriage is on their radar, and they live it up with the money they have. But Peggy wants more and she wants to keep living the high life. 

She wants to rob a gas station. It’s one little idea that soon blows way out of proportion. They are holding up banks, gas stations, and any place with money that they can lay their hands on. The pair is fugitives with exploits plastered all over the front pages and roadblocks waiting to stop them up. All the while Bart makes Peggy promise not to shoot anything because he still is totally opposed to killing people. 

It seems like things might end peaceably, except once again the gun-toting lovers are nearly flat broke so Peggy coaxes Bart into one last job to end all jobs. For the first time, despite their planning, just enough goes wrong to nearly botch their mission. Bart drives off and Peggy shoots a guard. He’s not the only one. 

 guncrazy1When Bart finds out, after the fact, he realizes they have just stepped up a level with murder stuck on them. The game is winding down and the only place Bart can turn is his hometown where his sister is. For good reason, she cannot stand Bart or Peggy who she sees as poisoning her brother. And it’s true. Bart seems different now, so paralyzed by fear that he even pulls a gun on his old friends.

The last ditch effort of Bart and Peggy is to literally head for the hills. The dragnet is sent out and the hounds are let loose. They hardly have a chance before dropping from exhaustion in a swamp. They’re trapped and a crazed Peggy looks to shoot it out to the death. But for once Bart breaks with her remembering his friends. It doesn’t help him much.

Gun Crazy is a B-film and yet it is easy to forget because the way Joseph H. Lewis constructed this film is so impressive in its economy. One scene that reflects this so beautifully is the long take from the back seat of the car. The camera does not change positioning and so we see a bank job from the outside, and it only helps to build up greater tension.

 We also have enough time to care about certain characters. We have enough time to see Peggy is really no good. Yet with her keen marksmanship, she is a different shade of femme-fatale who is still as deadly as any of her contemporaries. Along with They Live by Night (1948), this is one of the archetypal Bonnie and Clyde-esque films. Thank goodness this film’s title was changed from Deadly is the Female to the more apt Gun Crazy. That it is. 

4/5 Stars