Rawhide (1951): Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward

220px-Poster_of_Rawhide_(1951_film).jpgThough it’s easy for this film to be overshadowed by Clint Eastwood’s Rowdy Yates, in retrospect, Rawhide is a spare outpost western nevertheless loaded with tension and talent. It is set against the backdrop of a network of stagecoaches transporting mail across the continental United States.

Rawhide Station is one such spot looked after by old-hand stationmaster, Sam Todd (Edgar Buchannan). He has been entrusted with training up young Easterner Tom Owens (Tyrone Power), whose father is division manager of the overland mail. This is a bit of on-the-job training before he moves back to the comfort of the East.

Power is slightly past his matinee idol prime, but he can still pretty nearly fake it with his dashingly handsome good looks. Meanwhile, Buchannan is always ready to be called upon, in a pinch, to play such a scraggly type, aided by his gravel-filled throat. It gives him instant credibility.

For whatever reason, Henry Hathaway is rarely remembered as a director, but when you take stock of his work, both in westerns and noir films, he really does have quite the catalog to his name over a very prodigious career spanning decades. Scriptwriter Dudley Nichols had a prominent career of us own as did cinematographer Milton Krasner. Thus, the technical credentials on the film are quite an impressive array.

But what makes Rawhide actually take as a contentious tale of the West is the rest of the cast. My, oh my, is the cast good. It’s stacked with a steady, reliable group who know their parts and play them handily. It’s tough to choose a standout.

Because Owens finds himself being held hostage by a pack of escaped convicts on the trail for gold. It just so happens a feisty young woman (Susan Hayward), toting a child back east, also has the unpleasant fortune of getting caught in their crosshairs.

This man, still fresh-behind-the-ears, is forced to grow up right quick in the face of such a dubious bunch. Hugh Marlowe plays an exceptionally perceptive bandit calling the shots, saddled by the trio of incompetents he broke out of prison with.

Jack Elam, with that wall-eyed stare of his, made a living for himself as one of the great heavies of all time, right up there with Lee Van Cleef. Because their eyes say it all. He’s the most lascivious of the bunch, prone to violent acts and leering at pretty women. Zimmerman has his hands full because while his other two cronies are older and more obedient, they’re no less dumb. Dean Jagger plays a near grandfatherly old coot while George Tobias is the scruffy foreigner Gratz.

As we settle in for the long hall, Rawhide becomes a game of survival in pursuit of incremental victories like trying to sneak S.O.S. notes to incoming travelers. Then, they manage to swipe a knife from the kitchen to begin chiseling an exit out of their room on the road to escape. All the while, in the back of their mind, they’re thinking about staying alive so they can find the gun dropped out by the corrals. It’s the faintest of hopes

They are further concerned with protecting the young progeny Vinnie has vowed to take care of ever since the passing of her sister in California. It all matters because each individual piece is a single entity in this entire patchwork of cat and mouse — a chess match playing out on all sides. What hangs in the balance are the lives of all those involved. When those are the constant stakes, it’s extremely difficult to have a tedious story.

In a single instance, the tripwires start going off, and the bodies start tumbling. We hold our breath to see who will make it out alive in such a precarious showdown. It plays its hand well. Power readily accepts the challenge at hand with grit and determination, while Susan Hayward has nerves of iron packing a shotgun to finish the job.  The harrowing adventure gives us two stalwart heroes in the end.

In considering our leads, it does feel as if Power is making a concerted effort to maintain his box office pull, while Rawhide feels more like a stepping stone for Susan Hayward as her career progressed to continually more interesting parts in the 50s. But in neither case does it feel like we’re dealing with preening stars. They ably claw and fight for survival with the pack of criminals in their stead.

I will admit the way the story is bookended as just another tale along the “jackass mail” line from San Francisco to St. Louis, “Oh Susannah” playing in the background, somehow cheapens what we’ve witnessed. It seems to momentarily lose its credibility as a grind-it-out western. Maybe we can just say it’s faulty advertising and leave it at that. Otherwise, Rawhide has more in common with the lean constructions of Budd Boetticher than any kind of superficial high-adventure cowboy picture. It comes with real guts.

3.5/5 Stars

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

Wichita (1955)

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The more and more I get to know Jacques Tourneur the more it seems that he was content in making films on his terms no matter the budget or restrictions. His ambitions were not to win awards or garner acclaim yet he was a master craftsman painting in shadows, intrigue, and vibrant strokes.

Known in his early days for his lucrative partnership with producer Val Lewton on low budget horror movies that still stand the test of time as inspired works, the high watermark of his career is indubitably the noir masterpiece Out of the Past (1947). By the 1950s he had settled into making westerns, swashbucklers, crime pictures, and pretty much anything else handed him.

The striking realization is that he never really moved up the Hollywood totem pole which makes me suspect it was partially by choice. He was content with a certain stratosphere of production and when you watch a picture like Wichita you can understand why.

It takes many of the mythical staples of The West and insets them within the contemporary Hollywood framework that generated a lore of its own.The lineage that gave us a plethora of television classics like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Rawhide, The Rifleman, Cheyenne, Bat Masterson, Wanted Dead or Alive, The Big Valley, Wagon Train, Sugarfoot, Have Gun Will Travel, and countless others that I either failed to mention or don’t know.

The tradition runs rich and deep. Where people address a hero like Wyatt Earp by his full name and there’s some sort of knowing comprehension. Where good and evil are unquestionable entities that we recognize outright. Where a final showdown is all but inevitable as is the town’s prettiest girl falling for our hero.

Wichita is such a picture and yet by some method of ingenuity and delight in his craft Tourneur makes it into something worth remembering. Part of that must be attributed to a script by Daniel B. Ullman which manages to have time for a big reversal and some social commentary in what otherwise could have been droll entertainment.

Meanwhile, though Joel McCrea might look a little decrepit and over the hill for such a role especially opposite a beaming Vera Miles, there’s still that same amiability and honesty that he was good for. James Stewart would look much the same opposite Miles in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). But like that picture, the themes add a depth of character to the western making it a transcendent medium since it’s as American a genre as they come and it provides the perfect breeding grounds for allegorical tales.

Because before we meet our hero we meet a group of cowboys who are driving their cattle toward the rapidly growing destination of Wichita, Kansas. With the railroad turning it into a pitstop, the city shows no signs of slowing down and turning into a ghost town. Instead it aspires to be the next big Mecca in the Midwest bringing all sorts of people — the Babylon on the Arkansas River without the hanging gardens.

One such traveler rides as a solitary figure toward the cattlemen in one of the film’s most canonical shots and they oblige by offering him a meal. However, two of their band are mighty eager to swipe their visitor’s saddlebags when he beds down for the night.

What follows is a preview of coming attractions and even as Earp (McCrea) goes on ahead to Wichita we know intuitively that there will be another confrontation. In the meantime, he rides into town under the banner reading: “Anything Goes in Wichita” and local floozies waving giddily as they pass in covered wagons.

As best as I can describe it the town is alive. Positively bustling with activity and it makes everything in the frame more interesting with this ever dynamic ambiance playing out in the background. I’d like to think that is what Tourneur is able to offer the material.

While we bide our time we watch Earp looking around for something to invest his talents in. He befriends the towns newsmakers a stodgy old veteran (Wallace Ford) and his ambitious understudy Bat Masterson (Keith Larsen).

Earp also ends up thwarting a bank raid raising the eyebrows of the local big whigs for his prowess with a six-shooter. Sam McCoy (Walter Coy) the man responsible for bringing the railroad to Wichita offers him the job of Marshall which Earp gently refuses on multiple occasions.

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Twice already we have seen him use his gun but he embodies the archetype, an agile marksman who is hesitant to use his firearms and only under extreme provocation. But the final trigger comes when the cowboys from before roll into town with a hearty welcome. However, when their merrymaking devolves into belligerent hooliganism that leaves a young boy as collateral damage, Earp is finally ready to pick up the badge.

It ends up being a battle between the business-minded community members with political clout and a man whose number one priority is public safety. Others like Doc Black (a wily Edgar Buchannan) and even McCoy are willing to make concessions for what is termed progress but Earp once he’s taken his post is a hardliner.

He won’t budge an inch which is an admirable trait even as it doesn’t buy him many supporters. But sometimes that’s what the great men do and it is what few men seem willing to do now. Conceding their popularity for the greater good. However, I can hardly criticize any man for such a stance unless I convict myself too. As McCrea asserts it’s, “Not a question of who’s right but what’s right.” That’s the bottom line and he sticks to it.

In the final shot of Wichita as husband and wife ride off in their carriage together the image is all too familiar evoking for me High Noon (1952) one of the first westerns that truly moved me on a human level. This picture did much of the same though on a lesser more inconsequential scale. It caused me to place a magnifying glass to issues that we still see the U.S. confronted with right at this very moment.

“If men aren’t carrying guns they cannot shoot each other.” This common sense comes straight from the film and yet you can easily see how it becomes clouded with personal ambitions and polarizing politics. There’s no denying that. Sometimes it takes a personal tragedy to shock us into some form of action. The question remains what is the greater good? I feel like it comes into clearer focus when you get hit where you’re the most vulnerable.

4/5 Stars

“Serving God and serving the law are two different things.” ~ Bat Masterson

“To do either one, takes a dedicated man.” ~ Arthur Whiteside

 

 

 

 

Talk of the Town (1942)

0db8e-the_talk_of_the_townThis comedy-drama begins with a rather stark montage chronicling how the unfortunately named Leopold Gilg (Cary Grant) was accused of arson, murder, and finally imprisoned by one owner of a mill named Holmes. After escaping from prison and an imminent conviction, in a torrential downpour, the hampered Gilg seeks asylum in a nearby house. It just happens to belong to Miss Nora Shelley a local teacher in Lochester and an acquaintance of Gilg. She reluctantly allows the injured fugitive to hold up in her attic, but then her new tenant arrives a day early, the distinguished professor Lightcap (Ronald Colman).

After Gilg finally reveals himself to Lightcap as the gardener Joseph, what forms is an interesting triangle with the two men on the sides and Ms. Shelley in the middle. Both men take a liking to each other despite their difference in opinion on justice. Lightcap is much the academic and he goes by the book. “Joseph” on the other hand has a more practical approach.

It does not matter much until the professor finally learns Joseph’s true identity and now he feels it is his duty to report Gilg no matter his affinity for him. But after Gilg gets away once again, the professor is finally coaxed to look into the case that he has been so reluctant to involve himself in. Both men make concessions out of respect for the other. The professor involves himself, buys some borscht, and cuts his beard, while Gilg turns himself in. It almost drives Ms. Shelley up the wall with grief. You see she loves both of them.

In his final search, Lightcap finds something very interesting indeed. The town mob bursts into the courtroom as Gilg stands trial again, but the professor shows up with a surprise of his own. He ends up as the next Court Justice, a very happy man and Ms. Shelley and Gilg are very happy for him. They don’t have much to complain about either.

George Steven’s film has a bit of a contrived plot much like The More the Merrier. Things certainly feel set up, but that’s okay because the cast is so wonderful it makes the set-piece work. Jean Arthur is in top form when she is exasperated and sneaking about making little white lies as people file in and out of her home. Gilg seemed like a rather odd role for Grant, but he pulled it off with his usual charm and charisma. Someone else might have made Lightcap unbearably stuffy, but Colman’s portrayal is always tolerable and very often charming. This had a lot more drama than I was expecting, but it was not short on the comedy either. My only complaint is that it ran a tad long, but it just meant more screen time for the leads. That’s not so bad. They were The Talk of the Town after all.

4/5 Stars

Shane (1953)

10788-shaneposterThere is often something special about westerns, and Shane is no different. Directed by George Stevens and starring Alan Ladd, Van Heflin, Jean Arthur, and other great character actors, Shane is simple yet charming. It has many of the qualities of a great movie, because of what it shows of mankind. Furthermore, it simply makes you feel good.

In the film Shane (Ladd) is a wandering ex-gunslinger, who decides to live with a frontier family as a hired hand. His presence makes everyone happy because he is quiet, humble, and fundamentally so good. However, there is trouble from a man named Riker and his gang. Heflin’s character is adamant he must face the foe and defend his home. Shane will not allow it knowing this is a job for him. The two friends fight it out with Shane winning and riding into town. In the end, he wins the shootout but more importantly he is reconciled with the family’s boy Joey. The time has come for him to move on and Shane rides off into the distance, a humble hero.

The first thing that always strikes me about this film is the brilliant scenery around Jackson Hole, Wyoming with the Tetons looming majestically behind a solitary cabin. In some sense, this is not just a western, but the archetypal story of a family taming the land.

The very next thing of importance is the eponymous and unassuming drifter Shane. He always seems so kind and good, but early on there are glimpses of another, perhaps darker past. And yet from the point of view of Joey, he is an idolized, almost mythological figure. What is so striking about Shane is that he is obviously handy with a gun and an excellent fighter, but he never flaunts it. Perhaps it is because he wishes to rely on it as his last possible resort, or maybe it is because he is just a humble man.

As an audience, much like Joey, we want him to fight back, and we are happy when he finally does. During the course of the film, Grafton’s mercantile and saloon is often the place of conflict, and here multiple times Shane ultimately uses violence. It is his fallback, but he uses it effectively even against his own friends if he sees fit. Then Shane drifts on and the cycle undoubtedly continues again.

Yes, he certainly could be called a hero, with no last name to speak of, but he is a man, who will always be on the move. This may not be because he wants to, but because he really has no other option. Shane foresaw what we did not want to see, and now he cannot come back even if he wants to, so he rides on. This is the middle of George Steven’s so-called “American Trilogy” and probably the hallmark of his illustrious career.

5/5 Stars