Cowboy (1958)

In Cowboy, Delmer Daves and Glenn Ford continue their fruitful partnership by examining the life of a different sort of cattleman. The movie opens on a grand mid-century establishment soon to be frequented by a  cowboy named Reece. Everything is colorful and ornate in the Spanish style with gaudy curtains and wood interiors.

Thus, it begins as a hotel drama that switches out a sulking Garbo and destructive John Barrymore for a gang of cowhands and a hotel clerk’s romance. The movie would not be the same without Jack Lemmon. He is Frank Harris, a lowly clerk with the unenviable task of moving some guests to make way for Mr. Reece. It runs deeper still. He’s fallen in love with the gorgeous daughter (Ann Kashfi) though her father dismisses the young man’s affirmations of love.

Soon enough, they will return to their native Mexico, and Maria will be a distant memory to the impressionable boy. Before he can sort out his feelings, Reece’s contingent comes pouring in and takes over the hotel.

The whole movie is built out of these two men coming together and what a glorious juxtaposition of characters it is. The dreamy-eyed idiot and a veteran cowboy, pragmatic and hard-bitten. Ford and Lemmon have been created on their most fundamental level to chafe with one another. Still, the tinge of comedy is not entirely imperceptible in the setup.

In their introduction, you have Lemmon sidling up to Reece’s bath to get in with his gang while Ford shoots stray cockroaches with some relish. Equally important is how real life intersects with film fiction because Glenn Ford built a storied career in westerns, even if you only count his films with Delmer Daves. Lemmon was always the common, everyman schmuck. Now he’s a tenderfoot barely prepared to place his backside on a horse.

Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo explores a modern mode of western calling for a different brand of star. Lemmon could easily be built into the City Slicker archetype, lovelorn and ready to prove himself. The first time Harris gets tossed from his horse it feels like a kind of initiation. He’s begrudgingly allowed to ride along, but there’s not going to be any concessions for him. He better toughen up or get out.

As their journey together begins, Daves does remind us about the austere beauty out on the range. It’s a tough life certainly, there is no Sabbath; you must learn to sleep in the saddle and pick yourself up when you fall. And yet there’s a newfound appreciation watching the cowboys at work against nature’s grandeur all around them. It feels like a noble profession out on the land using your heads and working hard each and every day.

Brian Donlevy was a minor icon of the 1940s, once he overcame his relegation as a tough guy, but almost 20 years later, there’s a modicum amount of joy seeing him still up to the task at hand along with such disparate figures as Dick York and Richard Jaeckel, each prone to their own sins, whether drink or violence.

It becomes apparent as a long-form almost classical tale, Cowboy can easily be compared with other cattle movies a la Red River. Because while we have Jack Lemmon and Ford’s not totally averse to humor, there must be hardship and conflict stirred up. They take up the mantles of John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, vying for control as they exorcise personal demons and hone in on their priorities.

Later there’s a strangely poignant funeral sequence after one of the trailhands (Strother Mother) is killed in a rattlesnake attack instigated by a practical joke. These unfortunate circumstances lend a troubling undercurrent to the sober congregation. It’s Frank’s first lesson in the cruelty of the trail.

In another moment, one of their group is drinking it up at a Mexican Cantina and is obviously about to be jumped by some jealous locals. Harris is intent to help him, but they live by the credo: if a man’s old enough to get himself into trouble, then a man’s old enough to get himself out of trouble. There’s no sentimentality or loyalty as far as they are concerned. You do your work and look out for your own hide.

These events are not completely isolated, but they put the newest trailhand over the edge. We know he’s naive about what it takes to survive out on the road, but he also highlights the callous code these men are willing to live by. He barks at Reece, “I thought I would be living with men, not a pack of animals.” It changes him thereafter. He won’t allow it to affect him anymore.

Cowboy hints at Jack Lemmon’s substantial chops as an actor. And I use the term in the sense it is often used. Sometimes comedy is not considered true “acting” to the same degree as drama, but it seems comedic actors are capable of some of the best drama. Perhaps they can see one in the other or vice versa.

Because the movie begins as a kind of comedy on the range. At least this is what it hints at and what we know Lemmon can offer. And then it builds into a story with greater ferocity and also emotional depth. It’s not just about a jilted romance, but a disillusionment in this admiration he had for a certain brand of masculinity. There’s something inwardly thrilling in this transformation even as we see the change projected over Lemmon’s character.

With grit and determination, Harris gets below the border to see his girl once more, but he’s been made callous and her circumstances are different. It feels like a betrayal. In these specific scenes, Dalton Trumbo, who was currently an exile in Mexico due to the Blacklist, calls upon a locale not far removed from him or even his earlier bullfighting effort, The Brave One. Also, he would go into a further deconstruction of the cowboy archetype in Lonely Are The Brave only a few years later. It’s difficult not to view these films across the same continuum.

True, it is a tale about cowboys — their lifestyle, whether real or imagined — and both the toxicity and mythos that comes with such a life. I couldn’t help thinking, like The Magnificent Seven, it fashions itself into something greater — a broader exploration of morality. Masculinity in the West takes on many facets be it survival, gunplay, or getting the girl, but it’s movies like these making it about a kind of stalwart integrity.

Like The Magnificent Seven, it starts out as a mission — representing a job with specific utility — and becomes a parable of doing right by your fellow man. Lemmon must mature and Ford must soften until they both settle on a newfound prerogative. The movie reverts back to the cycles these men know best, and yet not without changing them.

Cowboy is easily the most unheralded picture in Delmer Daves’s western trilogy with Glenn Ford, but it’s held together by some more stunning imagery and two truly complementary performances. Now as they lounge side by side in their bathwater picking off cockroaches, there’s a mutual respect between them along with a newfound parity.

3.5/5 Stars

The Hanging Tree (1959): Delmer Daves and Gary Cooper

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“You’re standing on the edge of a cliff. I don’t advise you going through life with your eyes closed.” – Doc Frail

Delmer Daves isn’t often remembered alongside the foremost western directors. Although in the 1950s, he crafted some stellar movies, and something less-heralded like The Hanging Tree is as much a testament to his legacy as anything he ever did. It puts a fine foot forward with a bouncy ballad courtesy of Marty Robbins and verdant imagery of epic proportions.

We’re in Montana, 1873, in gold country, and the local folks have caught the bug. Gary Cooper (in one of his last great performances) drifts into town on horseback. As he rides past, someone notes the local hanging tree makes people feel respectable. We know it will have imminent significance.

For now, he sets up shop as an M.D. named Doc Frail. The bustling town is being built as we speak, everyone in search of their own private “glory hole.” They are territorial and have no mercy for sluice robbers trying to pilfer their claims.

Frail is a curious figure because he hardly seems drawn to the same promise of riches as everyone else. There is a sense that this is as good a place to stop as any. Like Joel McCrea’s judge in The Stranger on Horseback, he is a man of vocation, who knows how to take care of himself while also adhering to a personal code of conduct. However, he also has a smoldering secret buried in his past creating a lingering specter over his present. Some men might deem him a saint and others a devil.

Could it be he has a higher calling altogether? His first good deed is to fix up the thief (Ben Piazza), who got winged in the arm. But he doesn’t let the young man named Rune off without payment. He salvaged the boy’s life and so he takes him on as a begrudging bondservant. Again, it feels like it’s all part of the veteran doctor’s plan.

Cooper takes to the role, and it informs the more casual even comical tone the film sets on initially. Sure there’s a lurking menace but for the time being Coop takes to the people and provides them the healthcare they desperately need. They’re obliged to him. What’s more, he’s not an outsider — some of the folks have made his acquaintance before — and he’s likable while ratting out the phonies.

Front and center is the jovial if slightly skeezy Frenchy, with Karl Malden turning in a vital performance to supply the story some direction. The other is a scripture-spouting drunkard named Bub (George C. Scott in an early role).

The rest of the tale is built out of the search for a lost stagecoach passenger. When she is found, the half-unconscious, blinded Swiss immigrant (Maria Schell) is nursed back to health by Doc. He shields her from both the light and the prying eye of the world outside.

If it’s not apparent already, The Hanging Tree gives off the aura of an entirely different brand of western, and it’s not just the Montana terrain. It also comes down to the pacing and how the characters relate to one another.

Over time, Rune feels beholden to Doc, and he becomes a loyal companion by association. The same might be said of Elizabeth as she has the doctor to thank for her health and her entire livelihood. For the time being, she “sees” only the good in him. But the movie would be too clean if he reciprocated directly.

He continually takes part in these elliptical games with others. His lady benefactor calls him cruel for bringing people close only to push them away, and she has a point. It’s true his decency and bedside manner is tempered by a bleakly cynical side. How do you reconcile such a thoughtful figure with the man in black who gambles by night?

One also comes to understand how ephemeral this community seems. Doc warns Elizabeth their current home is a crawling anthill that could blow away with the scum of the world. It’s true in six weeks it could be a ghost town. But she rejoins with a plucky resolve. There is no other way to tackle this world, and she takes to it gladly. She settles into her own grubstake, christened “The Lucky Lady Mine,” joining forces alongside Rune and Frenchy (and a silent partner).

The ending of the movie can only end in one place if it’s to make good on its title. It’s true we end up there. What’s curious is how joyous euphoria about striking it rich can turn people into a mob just the same if they were angry. Inhibitions get released and the world goes to hell with drink, lust, and incendiary male hedonism.

For me, everything falls together so conveniently I didn’t have time to consider the logic. There’s little need to. Gary Cooper sticks to his guns and does what he always has from the beginning of time and by that I mean The Virginian way back in 1929. His quiet boldness punctuates the madness, and it feels right, though not totally complete.

If nothing else, it’s worth the final shot and in case we didn’t catch the metaphor, a musical refrain reminds us, “The Hanging Tree was a tree of life for me.” Where the gold rush-crazed economy is gladly ditched for something more tangible and lasting. Where being granted eyes to see can be a sobering reality check while still leading us in pursuit of goodness. Because sometimes the hanging tree might just be the place we find salvation once we realize we’re not in control. We can’t always save others, especially when we are in need of saving ourselves.

3.5/5 Stars

The Last Wagon (1956): Morals Out On The Range

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We’re in the Arizona territories. The year is 1873. Glorious overhead shots give us a sense of the vast panorama of the terrain in CinemaScope as Richard Widmark gets hunted down and returns the fire of his pursuers.

The distinctive red rocks have the hint of John Ford and if nothing else, remain a stunning reminder of America’s glorious topography. We really live in a gorgeous place if we take the time to get out in it.

For Widmark, it’s life or death as he kills one assailant only to get winged and dragged behind a horse by the wrists. It’s hardly water skiing. This is the untidy, rough-and-tumble law of the wide-open land. The victors are those who survive, whether through chicanery, brute strength, or guns loaded with lead.

It feels like we’ve been privy to a whole short movie before our main storyline has even begun. This is to The Last Wagon’s credit. It has robust beginnings and makes Widmark out to be an intriguing enigma right from the outset.

We find him finally, dead beat, strung up in a tree for safekeeping in the custody of a sadistic sheriff (George Matthews) as a wagon train of women and children scuttle by. They couldn’t be more diametrically opposed, but this is the entire premise of the movie right here.

It’s their leader (Douglas Kennedy) who welcomes the lawman into their company, wary of both prisoner and his executioner. It’s an uneasy partnership to be sure. He makes his moral stance quite clear when he blesses their evening meal, “Teach us to live with open hearts and share with our fellow man our values.” It falls on the deaf ears of Bull Harper and “Comanche” Todd, who is trussed up to a nearby wagon wheel.

The wanted criminal doesn’t help his case when he murderers yet another man in view of a whole wagon train of incredulous witnesses. They aren’t accustomed to such savagery. He comes back sharply, “I had a right to kill him, but I suppose my side of the story doesn’t interest you none.” It plays as another pointed comment on who he is: both a murderer and a “white” Comanche, and then who they are, naive Christian pilgrims.

There are two individuals in their ilk, in particular, who show him a dose of Christian compassion. The young boy Billy (Tommy Rettig) brings him food, with all the candor in the world, asking him honestly if he thinks he’ll go to heaven. It’s hardly out of a place of browbeating or scorn, but genuine concern. He’d like to go scouting with Todd up in Heaven because Billy aims to be there. He wants the other man to be there too. His older sister Jenny (Felicia Farr in an amiable and lucid performance) also extends him a certain benefit of the doubt.

Unfortunately, the movie’s attempt at commentary on prejudice is partially undermined in all its good intention. It begins with Widmark. Although it’s partially explained away through exposition, he’s certainly no Indian by birth. Likewise, in a precursor to her mixed-race role in Imitation for Life, Susan Kohner is given the role of a half-Navajo girl, who faces bigotry with a stolid resolve. It is her bratty half-sister (Stephanie Griffin), white by birth, who encapsulates all the malicious prejudices festering on the range. This is made plainly evident.

However, Delmer Daves does not constrict his movie into being a mere morality play. In fact, The Last Wagon is hard to pin down. There are all these potential narrative offshoots, and it supplies some genuine moments of surprise while still mixing its messages and becoming an entirely different narrative on multiple occasions. One prime example is how the movie is both indicting prejudices against American Indians and still somehow using them as a mechanistic trope of the West.

Gratefully, the movie splits off from the pack and hones in on the most intriguing characters. One drastic turning point comes when all the adolescents sneak off to go skinny-dipping, including the scandalized Valinda and the foxy Ridge (Nick Adams). They’re the story’s resident imbeciles. For the time they can frolic gaily only for the rapids to give them a scare, and then worse…

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They return to nothing — a camp totally decimated — Widmark is the only one left, cast aside on his wagon wheel. Valinda chastizes him, “You got no right to be alive when our people are dead!” Here we find the meat of our story. It settles into being a survival western with Richard Widmark anchoring the youthful contingent following his lead. Their objective is obvious, making their way through the aptly bone-chilling “Canyon of Death.” They have no other alternative. Widmark is the only one who knows what it takes to survive.

The Last Wagon has some downright bizarre moments — setting traps for food and Widmark makes it look like a breeze ambushing their dinner in a cave. In a matter of minutes, snake bites, apache ambushes, and they just keep on coming; it’s the kind of western melodrama not averse to tossing out all sorts of wrinkles, and why not? There’s a lot to work with. Either you laugh it off as absurd or you admire the commitment to making the story lively. The same goes for the dialogue. It’s not the most nuanced job, but it keeps the pulse going.

There are obligatory interludes too as he hacks off his handcuffs across from Farr while sharing his life story. We get something of his own spiritual belief system. His father was a circuit-riding preacher — he was even baptized — and his daddy looked to carry the word of his God to the whole world, that is until he died. The operative word is “his” God because Todd was adopted by a Comanche chief and never looked back. If this God wasn’t concerned with saving his father, then he wasn’t interested.

Still, they just might receive a providential intervention yet in the form of some horse soldiers. However, their saviors in Calvary uniforms turn out to be a reconnaissance unit, and with Indians on the warpath fast approaching, it becomes Todd’s time to rescue all of them. He knows the dilemma: Get them out of their hopeless predicament only to find himself on trial for murder.

It becomes a layman’s civil discourse. Law is law — Comanche or white — if it is just. The question remains who gets to decide Justice? Jenny comes to her man’s defense: The Good Book says something about taking life but what about giving life back? This is what he’s done for them — provided a lifeline in a hopeless scenario. Needless to say, whatever the parameters most human systems are flawed and infallible. They don’t always hold up.

In the end, there’s a kind of swelling sentiment as we watch redemption at work. The young men and women sitting before the courts as a testament to Todd’s decency. After such a treacherous journey, it’s convenient and painless. So be it. It feels equally grand to watch Widmark ride off with Farr and Rettig. It hits all the beats like a western such as this is supposed to. Nothing more is required.

Delmer Daves puts together an oater with a gorgeous sense of the Western vistas in its many earthy hues. Any ways in which it feels heavy-handed or derivative are mostly smoothed over by a typically stalwart performance by Widmark (and the fact I’m fond of Farr and Rettig). The Last Wagon is a pleasant surprise, and it need not be more.

3.5/5 Stars

Destination Tokyo (1943) and There’s No Place Like Home

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“This is sort of a blind date. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.” – Cary Grant as Captain Cassidy

No pretense can be made to suggest Destination Tokyo functions as an original entry of a “men on a mission movie” from a couple decades later. For one thing, Cary Grant doesn’t strike one as the soldiering type. He’s not Lee Marvin or Charles Bronson.

However, it must have worked on at least one kid. Years later Tony Curtis would recount how he saw the picture in theaters and the images of Grant looking through the periscope inspired him to enlist (and maybe become an actor).

He ultimately realized both aspirations — even starring with his hero in the Blake Edward’s comedy Operation Petticoat, which ironically, is set aboard a submarine! In Destination Tokyo, Grant is more business but an amiable skipper nonetheless, with a family waiting for him back home. Still, he’s more than prepared to face the task at hand.

Although they are not much of a secret, thanks to the built-in spoiler in the title, Captain Cassady (Grant) waits the designated 24 hours into their excursion before opening their orders. Obviously, they’re headed to Tokyo. They are also required to pick up a package en route: a meteorologist named Raymond (John Ridgely).

What the film does well is creating an ecosystem for characters to be empathized with because once we have the framework of the task at hand, we can readily spend our time getting to know the men onboard.

There always must be the callow recruit and this story is no different with Tommy Adams (Robert Hutton) stepping into the role. Meanwhile, John Garfield has a fine time hamming it up as the spirited Wolf enthralling the stir-crazy crew with his exploits with the fairer sex. His active imagination fuels their own hopes and dreams about sweethearts all across the sea, whether they exist or not.

Dane Clark readily complies to the rank and file with his own average G.I. Joe, “Tin Can,” an equally spirited Greek-American intent on getting his chance to make the “Japs” pay. Alan Hale, always counted on for comic relief, is little different here as the bubbly chef Cookie doing his best not to clang pans when they’re diving deep to evade the enemy.

Otherwise, he’s a handy fill in for Santa Claus for a Christmas spent 20,000 leagues under the sea, metaphorically speaking, of course. For someone like Adams, this is his first Christmas away from his family and the accordion accompanied quartet singing out “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and a few other yuletide favorites is a much-appreciated touch of home.

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The crew begins to truly feel the weight of circumstance when a pair of Japanese zeroes come upon them on the seas. They let ’em have it with their anti-aircraft deck guns firing into the sky.

One curious stylistic choice is to actually show the enemy pilots raining hell down on them. It hardly feels like an empathetic turn, however, and more of an easy way to label them. If you see someone like this, know they’re the ones doing injustices against us. We’ve got to stick it to them whatever the cost. It becomes more blatantly clear only minutes later. They’re backstabbers.

In a film with an understandable but generally misguided sense of Japanese culture, it does become an intriguing task to begin to unwrap the ideologies being promoted. One cannot quickly forget this is propaganda meant to mobilize mom, dad, and everyone else back at home.  It makes it easier to comprehend how ignorance and general misconceptions can be so widely propagated.

Delmer Daves would soon become well-versed in these kinds of wartime tales from The Very Thought of You to Hollywood Canteen and The Pride of The Marines. One can note actors like John Garfield, Dane Clark, and John Ridgely readily being recycled throughout. However, to its credit, instead of merely painting all Japanese people as terrors, it frames them as victims of a broken system of government.

The token metaphor alighted on are roller skates — those vehicles of carefree child-like recreation — we need more rollerskates in this world including the next generation of Japanese kids. Because it’s a far better alternative than more international conflict.

In the most harrowing interludes, the crew of the USS Copperfin surreptitiously sneak into the minefield of Tokyo Bay under the cloak of an oblivious enemy cruiser. They squeak past the enemy netting and hold their breath as they move into the heart of enemy terrain. Their covert mission continues with three men, including Wolf, going ashore to undertake reconnaissance. It feels somewhat eery for the very reasons two years later nearby locales would be absolutely obliterated by Big Boy and Fat Man.

The balance of the human drama with wartime objectives remains the film’s greatest strength. It’s not all pulse-pounding action necessarily, but it maintains interest through the investment in its characters over the long haul.

An unexpected complication involves an impromptu appendicitis operation. A former pharmacist student, not formally trained as a surgeon, is given the unpleasant task of removing the burst organ based on the written procedures in a textbook. Meanwhile, on land, Tokyo Rose jeers the Allies only for our protagonists to send vital weather reports over the radio to waiting Allied receivers. This entire operation is purportedly under the nose of oblivious Japanese operatives.

The most laughable reaction comes from an incredulous Garfield, “If the Japs pick it up, they’ll think it’s one of their own guys.” He didn’t take into account how stifled John Ridgely’s pronunciation sounds. My Japanese is abysmal, but it doesn’t take a linguistic genius to know he’s probably never spoken a lick of Japanese in his life. But I digress.

The return trip is fraught with bombardment from above as the Japanese get wise and in the ensuing pursuit, the sub gets hammered. The situation is dire with the interior leaking and filling up with water. It’s all hands on deck just to bail them out.

However, when the proverbial fog clears, miraculously, they’ve got off scot-free. The next prominent landmark they see is the Golden Gate Bridge, and it triggers all their fluffy feelings of Americana. After being in foreign waters, the relief of being back home in the good ol’ U.S.A is too great to pass up. As an American who has lived for an extensive period of time in Tokyo, somehow I can relate, though for very different reasons. There’s no place like home.

3.5/5 Stars

Pride of The Marines (1945): John Garfield Plays Al Schmid

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During WWII there’s no question John Garfield was integral to the war effort despite having never served in the military. He did yeoman’s work when it came to morale, through his pictures at Warner Bros, originating the famed Hollywood Canteen with Bette Davis, and going on war bond tours with the likes of John Basilone.

No question he was a devoted champion of the Allied cause and so when he learned of the true-life heroism of marine Al Schmid, flipping through the pages of Life magazine one day, he started the wheels turning in Hollywood. Schmid was a Philadelphia native who was deployed in the deadly warzone of Guadalcanal in 1942. He and two mates held onto their gunnery outpost against hundreds of enemy soldiers. Their valor was not without sacrifice.

There are certain stories you could hardly write better for the cinema screen and The Pride of The Marines is one of them. As such, Schmid’s story fits fluidly into three distinct segments. It begins as a bit of a hometown romance. In the opening voiceover Garfield, in character as Al, explains how Philly and the Liberty Bell is all he’s known and although this is his life, it could have just as easily been someone else’s. There’s no missing that Delmer Daves’ film is a universal flag-waver for the whole country to get behind.

Like any red-blooded American, Al’s a confirmed bachelor, though he loves the company of his landlords, the genial Merchant clan. Jim (John Ridgely) is always good-naturedly tinkering on everything with varied success. His wife Ella May (Ann Doran) is just about the warmest beacon of hospitality one could ever meet. And if they are both benevolent spirits, their bubbly daughter Loretta (Anne E. Todd) is equally so. Al is affectionate toward them all, even as he remains fiercely independent. No girl the resident matchmaker tries to set him up with will make him think otherwise.

It’s much the same when he finds a quivering Ruth Hadley (Eleanor Parker) at the front door in the dark. A fuse is blown. The lights are out. The family scurries around as a brusque Garfield lets her in. He’s prepared to tear her apart as she confirms all his assumptions about the typical girl-next-door.

This is the rockiest of meet-cutes but I must say, I like it because there is this instantaneous conflict. No disrespect to Dennis Morgan in The Very Thought of You, but Garfield brings his brand of tougher authenticity that’s far more compelling. The beauty of Parker is not simply being an attractive face — on par with any of the Hollywood starlets of the 1940s — there is an earnestness and a feistiness present in her very being.

It comes out over a miserable bowling date tacked onto their already awful evening. She’s been continually humiliated, and she retaliates with her bowling ball and a forceful march out the front doors, which receives whoops and hollers from all the patrons. This is when we realize we have a story and with it a true love affair.

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At first, it’s tentative. The second stint begins as Al prepares to ship out after Pearl Harbor. Nothing has been agreed upon between them. He’s noncommittal. She’s not one to beg and plead, though she has her own private desires. Their hours together are dwindling and in one final burst of emotion, he asks for a promise: to wait for him and he provides a token of his faithfulness. They’re tied together now like we always knew they would be. There were too many sparks for it to be any other way.

The war can really be summed up in one extended scene played out within the morass of war. Enemy “Japs” wade across the divide toward their waiting machine gun encampment, mowed down in the mayhem. They taunt them throughout the night, coming relentlessly, hour after hour, only to be stopped dead in their tracks, piling up everywhere.

I couldn’t help feeling some amount of conflict in witnessing all this. I am an American and I love John Garfield as much as the next fellow but this senseless killing — even in a fairly chaste old Hollywood movie — still feels like too much. The problem is it featuring war at its most intimate.

“Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes” is a practical axiom, but it also makes hand-to-hand combat far too personal. The film tries, but you cannot keep the enemy completely at arm’s length. Watching something like Fire on The Plains (1959) and we get an idea of what their side of the story might be. In this case, a stir-crazy Schmid holds them off in a gutsy stand that, nevertheless, leaves him without the use of his sight.

Phase three is arguably the most significant yet. He must start to grapple with this new reality, even as he’s rehabilitated in an army hospital in San Diego with some of his wounded buddies. He’s lying to himself, believing an operation will give him back his vision. The letter he dictates to be sent to a concerned Ruth paints much the same tale. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

The best shot comes in the moment of truth when the bandages are off in the darkness and as a flashlight is about to be brought up to his face, the camera focuses on his jet black hair and goes black as the voices keep talking. The image says enough already. We know the outcome without seeing anything or, precisely, because we don’t see anything…

Still, Al’s not ready to come to terms with reality nor is he prepared to tell Ruth. He wants to disappear so she’s not burdened with his disability; he’s even more dismayed to learn the presentation of his Navy Cross will take place back home. Because a “Marine doesn’t lean on nobody.”

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The old conundrum is not a foreign one. Each one of us wants to be loved, but what if you come back and we are not the same person — disabled or maimed in some way — that our significant other fell in love with? Will they still take you back or loathe the very sight of you? The answer is not always obvious.

Ultimately, it is his solicitous caretaker Virginia (Rosemary DeCamp) and the moral support of his buddies, including Lee (Dane Clark), pushing him forward. In one private phone call, the nurse confirms her suspicions. Ruth fits into the unconditional love category. She’s not going down without a fight, even if it’s a battle over the heart and soul of her disconsolate husband.

We need not dwell on what happens next. The imagination can all but fill it in. A bit of deception, the warmest of welcomes home, and the long haul ahead, forged by two people together as one. Al Schmid would die in 1982 and receive burial in Arlington Cemetery, while his beloved wife would follow him there in 2002.

Predating the likes of Best Years of Our Lives and The Men, The Pride of The Marines digs into the trials of soldiers coming home from war. Garfield is the most capable man I can think of to bear the brunt of this trauma. He battles the demons with his usual grit.

When he’s not at the center of the drama, it falters a bit into the typical didacticism. All the boys with honest, real-life problems, nevertheless, feel like they’re being used to preach to the audience about the plight of the G.I. It’s real, but the heavy-handed roundtable instigated by Daves gets in the way of everything of interest.

The starry-eyed adulation Loretta showers upon him about his exploits in Guadalcanal is also peculiar to me. “You killed 200 Japs, didn’t you Al?” She sounds breathlessly incredulous at this gargantuan feat; it’s like a trophy. I couldn’t help feeling a bit queasy about the statistics in this domestic context. It just goes to show my conflicted nature as a Japanese-American (who lived a stint in Japan) trying to parse through the complexities of World War II.

What’s not difficult to comprehend is just how brilliant Garfield and Parker are as a couple and if they do a fine job, then their real-life counterparts are even more extraordinary. Because they weren’t picking up a salary from Warner Bros. They were out in the trenches in the real world, living life, and facing everything together.

3.5/5 Stars

The Red House (1947)

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What Delmer Daves has gathered together is an oddly compelling mix of rural drama with undertones of horror somehow merged into what we might be able to pass off as a strain of noir. What I find particularly intriguing is not so much the mysterious Red House at the core of the story, as the impending pandora’s box of doom and personal revelation, but it’s the curious character dynamics that stay with me.

Edward G. Robinson stars as Pete, a man with a wooden leg who has long lived in seclusion with his sister and adopted daughter. He’s been content with this lifestyle remaining self-sufficient and living off the bounty of their farm. He hasn’t needed anyone else for a long time and he’d generally like to keep it that way.

Perhaps by this point, I simply take his skill for granted but it was the performances around Robinson that were the most engaging for me. Judith Anderson plays a surprisingly compassionate and maternal woman who has sacrificed a lot and is more sympathetic than most roles I can recall within her body of work.

But this is a young person’s story as much as it’s about the adults. That’s where much of the heart lies. The local high schoolers ride to and from school on the bus and in the back row is where the story’s main romantic relationship of interest is conceived in one of the most visually awkward setups imaginable. We meet a young man with his girlfriend with another girl sitting in the frame uncomfortably.

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Lon Mcallister returns with the same bright and boyish countenance from Stage Door Canteen bringing a kindly spirit to the screen that’s wholly unassuming and morally upright. Likewise, Allene Roberts proves reminiscent of the demure Cathy O’Donnell while her eyes are imbued with a near doleful innocence. She is the girl who sits on the bus, the awkward third wheel. As Nath and Meg, they are two young folks exuding an utterly sincere candor.

Meg earnestly wants the young man to help her uncle out on his farm. She thinks he will be of great help and she excitedly goes to her aunt to share the good news that he’s accepted the offer. It’s even more curious that Nath so quickly accepts the job offer knowing it will mean long hours, a mile walk out of his way, and time spent in close proximity to this earnest young girl.

Because they aren’t a couple. This privilege goes to Julie London as his sultry and slightly entitled beau Tibby. Think about it too long and they don’t seem to fit each other but since it is already, we buy into it; she might just like a nice guy like him. Because in this slice of America, the boy-next-door speaks to something desirable still.

However, there’s also Rory Calhoun as Teller, the dark and imposing stud who Pete has made the keeper of the forests near his farmhouse for some undisclosed reason. That in itself is a strange setup but if anything it gives the dashing man free license to lord over the mysterious territory and keep others off the woodlands by any means possible. He’s been sanctioned by Pete to undertake any measures necessary and he does.

Just as we have two kind, innocent people to lend an underlying decency to our picture, we have their foils in two beautiful people who look to be out for themselves. Surely, they must get together and such a scene is instigated when the broodingly handsome fellow waits to intercept Tibby on her way home. He carries her across a stream and snatches a kiss from her as due payment. She doesn’t seem to mind too much.

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But that is hardly the calamitous heart and soul of the picture, the dark underbelly of Middle America hidden away in isolation. For that, we must look to Robinson harboring a secret bubbling ominously beneath the surface. His niece is intent on finally visiting the house that he has continually forbidden her to see. She wants to know why. She has the right to know even if it hurts her.

But again, I never cared too much about the deep dark secret buried there because I think most of us have a general inclination of what it might be about. The anticipation comes in the created experience, not the forthcoming outcomes.

In some regards, The Red House shares some commonalities with the noirish western thriller Pursued, also released in 1947. Aside from featuring Judith Anderson, the other picture also concerned itself with psychological issues and a murky past laden with all sorts of trauma. But The Red House is more straightforward and clear-cut making the interpersonal relationships between characters paramount over any sequence of action.

The narrative is capped with a picturesque final shot worthy of such a peculiar movie. Framed with its idyllic beginnings and equally peaceful panoramic endings, it’s nearly possible to forget what we’ve just seen. All the rough edges have been smoothed out and the dark recesses of rancor replaced with young love.

It’s this startling dichotomy that gives the film’s its allure; that and the strength of its performances. Everyone plays their types exquisitely from the established stars like Robinson and Anderson to the winsome newcomers. Allene Roberts left a striking impression most of all. To read about her life story is to fall in love with her even more. She seems like a lovely person. God bless her.

3.5/5 Stars

Note: Since originally writing this review, Allene Roberts passed away on May 9th, 2019.

3:10 to Yuma (1957)

310_to_Yuma_(1957_film).jpgThe picture showcases a parched landscape of cacti and dusty trails — the arid terrain accentuated by purposely tinted photography. It’s aided by that bleak black & white palette courtesy of Charles Lawton Jr., just as Delmer Dave’s earlier western, Jubal (1956), was made by its vibrant imagery around Jackson Hole. Each fits the mood called for impeccably.

Setting the scene, you have Frankie Laine belting out the epic title track with his usual gusto; the opening gambit with focused precision initiates a holdup and the repercussions of such an act. This coach headed for the Arizona outpost of Contention is robbed and the driver killed. The culprits are Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) and his band of thugs.

Felicia Farr is reteamed with Ford refilling the drinks of all the boys as they brazenly ditch the crime scene and head to a nearby saloon to drink it off.  The sparks fly between the pair as they’re both a little less saintly compared to the previous year’s Jubal (1956). Except their romancing isn’t the meat of the storyline. For that, we must turn to the other man who was indirectly affected by the robbery.

Dan Evans (Van Heflin) is a struggling rancher plagued by the local drought, but he and his two sons also witnessed the holdup go down. Pretty soon, Wade is captured and Evans signs on for $200 that will help him get by. Together he and another man, the town drunk, carry out the sheriff’s plan to transport Wade for safekeeping while they wait it out for the 3:10 to Yuma.

Lacking the edgier shoot ’em up qualities of its still thoroughly engaging remake starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, this original offering from Daves, with a story by Elmore Leonard, must be first and foremost a character study and it is an exemplary one.

It’s an assignment of such an intimate even personal nature although Evans only took it for the money. In one scene the outlaw sits around the family dinner table like a regular guest, except he’s handcuffed and the curious boy pipes up asking questions about him. Then Wade sits at the table and has a nice long talk with Mrs. Evans that almost makes him seem human. That’s just it. He’s done some bad things but it’s hard to get away from the fact he can be a rational, even decent person.

But the epitome of the picture comes near the end when the two men hold up together in a hotel room waiting for the minutes to pass, knowing full-well Wade’s men will be coming any minute to have it out. There’s a ticking clock plotting device in use like High Noon (1952) as one of his cronies (Richard Jaeckel) is milling about waiting for the reinforcements to come. But also everyone in town is anticipating the incoming train.

Glenn Ford evolves into the devil on the shoulder, constantly testing Evans through proposed bribery and parlor tricks that provide all sorts of distractions to wear down his captor. His coolness juxtaposes nicely with the antsy ranchhand with dynamics running analogous to The Naked Spur (1954). This time Glenn Ford is doing the continual psychological manipulation instead of Robert Ryan. Ryan is good but I think here Ford works far better across from Van Heflin.

As heroes, they are similar types (see Shane or Jubal) and that makes Ford’s corrupt turn still somehow mirror the other man. In a different life or maybe a different film, we could see how the roles might be reversed. For now, they must deal with claustrophobia that’s certainly exasperated by confined space but really exerts itself throughout the finale, even outdoors. It’s not so dependent simply on the physical location as it is the pressures bearing down on the character of Evans.

It’s a contentious proposition, no small coincidence that right there we have the name of the town but at least Dan is not standing alone… This quickly changes when the gang materializes and proves to be more formidable than initially suspected. Rapidly his backup, made of family men just like him, has quickly dissolved and it’s just him against a band of cold-blooded killers.

The final moments are an exhibition in heroism where it takes one man like Evans, bent in his personal resolve to see his job to completion, even as the deck’s stacked against him. Again, we have echoes of High Noon.

It’s true everyone continually hammers home the fact. By this time there’s no amount of obligation. The man who hired him on (Robert Emmhardt), his frantic wife (Leora Dana) rushes to get him to change his mind, even his prisoner tells him the same. And yet he sticks with it because one man has died — a man who granted might have been slightly misguided — yet he believed in some form of law and order enacted by the people for the people. That’s what makes Evans proceed with this near-suicidal mission. It has to do with moral rectitude and committing to what you deem to be right — even if there’s a cost.

Does the picture chicken out in the end? I’ll let you decide for yourself. Regardless, Van Heflin and Glenn Ford are in fine form and require the viewer to brace themselves for a tension-filled ride. One could argue 3:10 to Yuma is forged and won in their scenes together. Everything else is informed by this central relationship.

4/5 Stars

Jubal (1956)

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There’s no doubt about it. Jubal boasts absolutely gorgeous imagery and how can you miss with a backdrop as majestic as the Grand Tetons and Jackson Hole, Wyoming? Its looming grandeur is evident in just about every single exterior shot — a continuous hallmark of classical frontier visions.

This element alone will quickly cause many western aficionados to recall one of the finest in the genre, George Stevens’ Shane (1953), which was also shot in the same area and consequently, exhibits a broadly similar plotline. However, that can be attributed to the fact westerns often busy themselves with tales of lone drifters riding toward new destinations in an effort to escape some unnamed force in their past. Jubal (Glenn Ford) is molded out of the same archetype.

Except Jubal winds up at the cattle ranch of the welcoming Sherp Horgan (Ernest Borgnine), who finds the other man frostbitten and proceeds to give him shelter and a cup of coffee. That’s just Sherp’s way, even though he’s a fairly prosperous man with a pretty wife (Valerie French), he’s instantly likable and beloved by everyone, in spite of his good-natured prattling.

The figure instantly positioned as an antagonist is Pinky (Rod Steiger) who right off the bat accuses the other man of smelling of sheep. He holds sheepherders in disdain but soon feels like his position on the ranch is under threat. Because despite being a newcomer, Jubal instantly makes an impression as a reserved but nevertheless trustworthy and hardworking ranch hand.

He gains the favor of Sherp even as he’s bent on moving on. That’s his nature. Delmer Daves serves as both screenwriter and director, adapting a story bearing the strains of Shakespeare’s Othello but again, like comparison’s with Shane, it’s true most stories have narratives scouring similar cisterns for inspiration. What matters most is what they offer us that is unique.

Ultimately, Jubal does decide to stay on a spell and the consequences are not unfelt. He conceals a buried hurt that supplies our character conflict. In some regards, as best as I can describe it, he fits too neatly into a box as it all comes gushing out when talking with a pretty ingenue played by Felicia Farr. As he discloses his deep-seated hurt, Jube readily acknowledges he’s never shared this boyhood trauma with anyone else. There’s something about her genial innocence setting him instantly at ease.

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Her parents are part of an unnamed religious caravan searching for the Promised Land and Jubal is instrumental in allowing them to stay on the ranch, even as Pinky fights for them to move along. He’s continually looking to belittle and lessen Jubal in Horgan’s eyes by any means possible.

Meanwhile, the seductive onslaughts turned toward Jubal, coupled with slanderous verbal assaults from a jealous rival, look to take the man down one way or another. Yet he will do nothing to compromise himself. He stands firm with integrity but like Joseph with Potiphar’s wife, you know he will be blamed for something he had no hand in.

The whole film is really an exhibition in differing acting styles rubbing up against each other. Rod Steiger, of course, immersed himself in “The Method,” famously playing alongside Brando in On The Waterfront (1954). In Jubal, you can very easily see the early shades of Officer Gillespie, though Pinky is arguably worse as an animalistic brute with a bur in his backside.

You can also easily see how his animosity could have spilled over into everything and soured his working relationship with Ford and Borgnine, who maintain a more naturalistic even intuitive style. Regardless, each man feels well-suited to their respective parts.

The same can be said of John Dierkes as well and Noah Beery Jr., as genial as ever, playing on the fiddle as another ranch hand. Charles Bronson at first seems a curious even suspicious character although his purpose becomes evident as he becomes the go-between to vouch for others, knowing both the worlds of the religious pilgrims and the ranchers. Jack Elam is features though he doesn’t have much to do while Victoria French’s role relies heavily on her being a tantalizing seductress, constantly coaxing Jubal into some sort of romantic tryst.

The film is a testament to the intrigue found in continuous antipathy and an almost fatalistic sense of powerlessness in the face of inevitable doom. In other words, no matter how hard he tries, it seems like Jube will never be able to win.

My main qualm, however, is in the ending. I’m used to abrupt endings but the film seems to have delegated its time in the wrong ways. The beauty of the film thus far was its smoldering potential threat which led to some invariably dark turns. By the final juncture, we essentially know what will happen but we relish them coming to fruition in a cathartically cinematic fashion.

While Jubal gets the girl and clears his name, he only gets a very brief showdown with the continual thorn in his side, Pinky, before the doctor comes out of the shed to pronounce death with the other man being guilty of certain indiscretions.

So in very basic terms what could have been a more thrilling culmination is all but cut short. Vindication is made easy. Otherwise, the picture boils to the end thanks to the maddening rage of Steiger, which is capable of twisting every minor detail into more ammunition to try and sway the mob and bury another man in his premature grave.

The necessity is that Ford is and remains throughout the film a white knight, never has a lapse of character, and even goes after the good girl. It’s the circumstances that are constantly against him. It makes for a tumultuous and repeatedly helpless state of being for the entirety of the film. The blip before “The End” loses a bit of this tension but up to that point, Jubal makes good as a friction-filled western drama.

4/5 Stars